I'm writing you from the depths of a hideous stomach virus, and I recommend each and every one of you to stay FAR, FAR away from me. What better way to keep your distance than by making a few stops on this year's Summer Book Blog Tour? You can see the whole schedule, with links and snippets posted each day, here at Chasing Ray. Here are a few hot stops from days one and two:
Kate Milford - Chasing Ray: "Staten Island is a perfect blank for lots of folks, except they know there's a ferry and they know there's an expressway."
Randa Abdel Fattah - Crazy QuiltEdi: "...A feeling of dread came over me as I worried that I'd be the last person to be chosen. And it clicked then that the desire to belong and not stand out as 'a loner' never quite leaves you, even after your school days are long gone."
Tim Lebbon - Bildungsroman: "Blimey...quite some time since I wrote that story. It's a tale about a guy losing his wife, and then trying to regain some hold on her by bringing back all the dolls she used to collect."
Nalo Hopkinson - The Happy Nappy Bookseller: "It's a dilemma for many -- not all --young black Canadians as they try to self-define. On this continent, blackness is seen as synonymous with black Americanness. If they don't look and act like what people associate with American blackness, they get seen as weird, inauthentic."
Timothy Decker - Chasing Ray: "I put hours into every illustration because I want to make drawings that are so interesting or intense that a child falls into them. I want them to have a magical adventure inside their mind, where my words or maybe just my illustrations spark all kinds of thoughts or questions. No one blows through my books as if the stories are mindless entertainment, they have to bring their brain and meet me half way."
YS Lee - The Ya Ya Yas: "What's not to love about a perfect storm of mega-pollution, heat wave, and the great public health panic of urban London?"
Tanita Davis - The Happy Nappy Bookseller: "A little bonus fact: I wrote Ysabel's backstory twice because originally she was in orchestra, and my editor said that there were too many YA novels with female characters who played cellos."
What a fabulous way to discover new authors and old friends (if you missed the mad love I have for Tanita Davis and her book Happy Families, go back to this post). And you can find me chatting with Edi Campbell of Crazy QuiltEdi on Friday, by which time I will be safely uncontagious, I hope!
After smooth flying and driving, we are finally "home" to the States--Texas for a bit before heading back to Indiana. Husband and I are nostalgic for Paris already, especially when we are eating out ("Look at the size of this table! Where are our cozy cafe spots?"). Liam still talks about one of his friends from his Paris nursery school, and I'm sure he is jonesing for those daily patisserie stops.
But we are home.
I remember, as a sixteen-year-old girl about to leave East Texas for the first time. I couldn't imagine a more beautiful place than my Piney Woods, and yet I knew I needed to go.
Now I've been blessed to have seen all kinds of beauty--mountains and East Coast forests, California's lush bits, beautiful vistas in Paris, farmland in Normandy, Belfast's skies. But there is something about the look of home, its smells. There is nothing beautiful about an oil derrick or pumpjack, but they are part of my childhood landscape. Living in this place with my own child returns me to my experiences as a little girl, and that's its own kind of beauty.
For now, I'm avoiding comparisons to Paris and just living our re-discovered home one gentle look at a time.
I am currently flying over the Atlantic (away from Paris and our 9-month adventure here), but in honor of the occasion, I have dredged up a poem I wrote in a writing workshop at Simon's Rock College when I was seventeen.
I thought I was so wise, but really I just flew a lot to and from school... and got melancholy on those flights.
So here it is... and if you ever wondered why all the poems I've shared are over a decade old, read these confessions about poetry.
"See you" when I'm back in the States.
The trembling handle, humming floor,
A bead of condensation licking down
Cupped hands of the vacant toilet bowl;
Each row’s portal of blue
Bent inward by the sight
Of the tangled hair of clouds;
Slow spreading of stale
Dinner smells through the cabin
Aisles in hot, sour gusts;
Glimpse of tight breasts
Fondled by the rough hand
Of a wool sweater, seen between
The crooked backs of seats;
The pressure of a gray handkerchief
Knotted around dirty strands of hair,
This plane, an old woman made small
By the wide arms of air, or
A moth flapping over an ash heap.
When you fly, you forget your name,
Become some nocturnal creature
Hunched over the stiff fabric
Of 16-A or 34-C. There’s the steam
That rises from glistening foreheads,
Damp palms, bodies lined up carefully
and numbered. Even the finger-stripped
Magazines meet you unprepared,
Cramped in your seat, bleary,
Unsure of the world. For here,
Pressed in against some lambskin
Coat, the fleece balled up
Like cotton weeping on its stalk,
You are neither where you are going
Nor where you came from. You are
16,000 feet above your city limits, your dry-
mouthed hopes, your three kids,
Your electric razor. Heart,
What is that? No answer, just a vision
Of marked exits and, nearby, the low
Rattle of breath.
In the airport, you blink.
You blink. You blink. The swollen
Eyes of high lamps blaze down, a dozen
Scornful suns. Something heavy
Gripped in your hand and a lingering
Itch on one arm remembers the dry
Scratch of the puckered seat. Water-
Spotted leather shoes two steps ahead
Tap out a path through a long corridor,
One hundred four
Other pairs of feet scuffing, wheels
Clack-clacking over low seams
Of tiles. You are glassed into this passage;
Windows stretch thin between frames,
Meeting night with only half an inch of skin.
Below, planes drag their burdensome bodies
Across pavement. Blue, red, orange
Lights scan, flicker, pulse, quarreling
In the bustle, illuminating
The oily memories of palms, fingertips,
Which tomorrow will be wiped clean.
And in the glass, a face skims, reflected.
Yes, rolled pieces of night, eyes
Tugged on by the darkness,
Also the crook of an ear, slash for a nose
Lips uncertain of the hour.
And the shadowy thing of skin,
This face . . . whose?
And . . . can you claim it as yours?
But wait, no fear! There, a voice,
Your name, up ahead the familiar glow
Of the familial grin — recognition!
Your relief now accompanied by the shallow
Breaths usually reserved for moments
After brief love-making or mild exercise.
I’m no publicity pro, but I recently set up my own blog tour to launch The Knife and the Butterfly, and I learned a few things along the way. So while there are services that will set up a blog tour for you (for a fee!), I’m here to tell you why you might want to do it yourself and how to make it a success.
Even if you plan to make the rounds of launch parties, signings, and school visits, there are good reasons to set up your own blog tour as well. It’s a great opportunity to find real partners and colleagues online. Even friendships! Want to take the plunge? Here's what you need to know...
Step 1: Contact bloggers.
If this is not your first book, you’ve probably done online book promo before, and you’re going to have certain bloggers in mind already. Use those contacts! You should also make new connections.
Whether you’re building on past online appearances or starting from scratch, take time to do your research. Find blogs you like--you should be reading these--and pay attention to who they link to. You can also find databases that organize blogs by topic, or try searching with google reader.
Once you have a list of blogs you'd like to work with, email each blogger personally to let him or her know about the blog tour. When you write, show that you are familiar with their site by including at least a quick reference to their actual content and why a post about you would be of interest to their readers. In your email, invite the blogger to join and choose a date, indicate basic time frames (“I will get posts to you X days in advance of your tour date”), and suggest possible post ideas (more on that in a sec).
When choosing who to reach out to, you’ll want to pay attention to frequency of posts, reader activity (commenting), and—most importantly—professionalism and quality of posts. For example, if typos drive you crazy, don’t set yourself up with a blogger who has a huge following but is very casual about grammar. You are an author; how they set up your post ultimately reflects on you.
Step 2: Organize yourself.
Okay, you’ve sent a bunch of thoughtful emails out, and responses are starting to coming back. How do you schedule your tour? How do you keep track of what posts go where, of who you’ve emailed, of what you’ve already said?
Friends, Scrivener was (for me) the answer to every possible want I could have in organizing this tour. Especially for authors already moderately familiar with Scrivener, this is the way to go. In an upcoming post, I’ll share some lessons I learned about logistics and give you a peek at the Scrivener file I used to keep myself organized.
(Psst! Scrivener is, hands down, the best tool for a time-elapse project like a blog tour. It lets you keep your posts organized and keep track of dates and details WITHOUT having to open a zillion different Word files. I swear, nobody is paying me to say this.)
Anyway, whatever tool you use, you need some way to keep track of:
(1) what each post is supposed to be (any special guidelines, etc.)
(2) the email of the person you should send it to (usually the blog owner)
(3) what blog it will be posted on (helps you to create a list of links)
(4) when the post goes live
(5) if you’ve done it yet or not
Step 3: Prep your posts.
We’ll take for granted that your book is amazing. How will the posts on your blog tour give readers reasons to want that book NOW?
Start by making sure you write quality posts. You can write a week or even a month’s worth of interesting, varied content about your book, but you can’t do it at the last minute. How long your tour is will also depend a bit on how much you enjoy doing this kind of writing. If it feels like a chore, keep the tour short and do a good job on a few posts.
After the years of labor it takes to bring a book into being, you may feel you’ve said all you want to say, but with a little effort, you can surprise yourself with insights when you start digging up content for the blog tour.
Here are some categories of posts you might consider (click on links for examples):
(5) Top 10 list
(9) explore a theme
(10) “Dear Teen Me” style letter (for YA authors)
(11) Two Truths and a Lie
(14) define your audience
(16) video post (I've never been brave enough, but here's a fun one with author Julia Karr)
You should also invite bloggers to suggest topics and/or frameworks for your guest post since they know their audiences best. They can often offer a new idea, too, especially if they’ve read your book.
Step 4: Know what to send with every post.
Author bio. Keep it brief and resist the urge to be too cute. I include this in my email in case the blogger wants to post it.
Synopsis and excerpts. Other staples of your guest posts are going to be a good (brief) description of your novel and—in my opinion—at least a small excerpt. For me, that’s important in terms of helping potential readers get a sense of the novel itself—not just my blogging persona. I chose different excerpts for each post, which often helped me to uncover new angles.
Images. Include core images—book cover, author photo, etc.—already attached. You can add additional photos or images relevant to each post to personalize it and add interest.
Book-buying and media links. At the end of each post, you want to let readers know how to find you and your books, so provide links to twitter, your own blog, and book-buying outlets. (You’d be amazed by how many authors don’t make it easy to purchase their books!) Give bloggers the option of editing this, of course, based on how much promo they feel comfortable with. Less is sometimes more.
Step 5: Deliver the goods.
Send your blogger contact your post at least a week in advance along with any images that go with it.
To make your life easier, you might want to save a template email that has your author bio included as well as a standard set of pictures (blog tour banner, author photo, book cover image, etc.) that you add to or take away from depending on the specifics of the post. You can also let bloggers know that they can choose to use whichever images they like.
I also found that it was very helpful to ask bloggers to send me a link to the post when it went live. As soon as I got that email, I was able to go to the blog tour page on my own website and put the permalink in for that stop on the tour.
Step 6: Follow up.
Be sure to visit the blogs that host you and your tour and respond to any comments that readers leave. Also, send the blogger a thank-you message; they’ve put work into making your stop a success.
Whew! I hope this helps others who want to make a blog tour part of their book launch. If you have follow-up questions, share them in the comments. I'm always happy to share from my experiences; I've been blessed to have LOTS of mentors guide me down the paths of authordom. Thank goodness for trailblazers!
You know about the segregation of black school children in the Jim Crow era, but do you know how it affected the Mexican American community?
For my third novel, I have done a lot of research about the experiences of Mexican Americans in schools in the 1930s. In reading about the logistics of segregating Mexican-American students in Texas, what stunned me most was that most kids were essential forced out of school by sixth grade. Enormously overcrowded classrooms in the "Mexican" schools made learning difficult, putting the students further behind their white peers with each year.
On top of that, the school districts in Texas often divided each elementary grade into two years (for example, "lower first," "upper first") in "Mexican" schools. The result was that--by middle school--Hispanic students were often told they were "too old" for the grade they should have been able to join in the (white) middle school.
In Houston in the 30s, only a handful of Mexican-Americans (usually lighter skinned) graduated from high school at all despite a significant Hispanic population in the area. They faced discrimination in white schools, and there was no "Mexican" public high school as an option.
I also discovered that, unlike African-Americans, whose teachers--also African-American--were usually committed to helping students use education to combat their circumstances, Mexican-American children were almost invariably taught by white teachers, some of whom found theirs an "undesirable" placement and were quick to underestimate the abilities of their students.
None of this is at the center of novel #3, but an unfavorable educational situation in San Antonio acts as one of the catalysts for a key relocation. Some of these details will, I hope, find their place in the plot, though. Because the three-fold school segregation in Texas--and its powerful, negative legacy for our communities--needs to be acknowledged.
Last night I stumbled across these entries written in one of my notebooks during a trip to Belfast in 2005. I've typed it up for you because I still feel the same way about skies. And gratitude. Turns out I'm still, more or less, the same person as I was back then. Pinch myself and command myself to look up.
By 6:00 a.m. the sun is already alive high in the sky. A real blue sky, few clouds. The tiny room I stay in is full to the ceiling with light. ALL THAT LIGHT remembered through one small window. Light burning to the heart of my sleep.
Later each day I marvel at the morning sun’s precocious brilliance. Oh I know it’s really a matter of latitudes, but in my mind the Belfast summer sun is simply ambitious, determined to get the work of the day started, and the sooner, the better.
If you want to see blue sky over here, you have to be equally ambitious. 6:30 a.m. ambitious. Because by 10:00, that giant blue chalkboard is hidden, and the sun is lost behind bank after bank of clouds. They blow in suddenly, blot everything out. Even I, daughter of Texas (don’t like the weather? Wait five minutes!) find this to be a fickle sky. You can never trust it. One minute it’s balmy. Next, thunderheads have rolled in, and they don’t spare you any wetness, neither. Raingear a must regardless of how the sky looks when you leave the house.
Today Julia and I went to Castle Hill, a high hill at the edge of town, a mountain by my Texas standards. The weather was foul when we got off our bus and started climbing toward the park path. The clouds flicked spiteful spit down on the pavement, dampening our hair, stilling hopes.
Then, suddenly: hot sun, blue sky. We sweat up the steep path. The perspiration rivers down my back, pools tellingly below my pack, dribbles down my arms.
Halfway up, Julia points out blueberry bushes she saw the last time she was here with Ralf. We check them out, and though the peak of the season has passed, we find perfect, late-formed jewels hanging amid the tiny juice-stained leaves. We pick and eat them until our hands are painted as well.
Julia tells me of her own berry-picking, mushroom-hunting childhood escapades. “Our dog was just the right height to graze straight from the bushes. Of course, you didn’t want him around when you were picking, such a slobberer, but he was so funny coming home with his big happy grin and lolling purple tongue.”
Some two heaving hours later, we arrive at the top, at the cliff’s edge. Wind so strong I fear it. Julia remembers a dell (think: crater in the hillside) where we find shelter from the wind. We plop down, lying on our jackets, and admire the green of the field and the blue of the sky. I squint up at the whipping seas of grasses. Also the heather, a lavender wonder. The real stuff of books. (Macbeth’s witches: “We shall meet upon the heath.”) I try to photograph the wild whipping of that grass, which puts me in mind of the celebrants of some ascetic sect for whom self-flagellation is a must. Photographed, though, it seems to say only, GRASS. Not “the grasses beating themselves under a broad blue sky.”
We are talking of past loves and fault lines in relationships. Our backs press into the earth as we eat the butter and cheese sandwiches we carried up in our packs.
And then it happens.
Our eyes are closed to let lids soak up the wonder of it all, but we can still feel the change. The sun vanishes from us. Just like that. Clouds whip across us fast, pitching raindrops in earnest. “Jesus,” I mutter, “from where…?”
Julia, ever the geographer’s wife, explains. Our nearness to the coast means that when the sun shines bright, it heats up the water of the sea. Said water rises in vapor, forming clouds. These clouds gather, then roll in on inland winds.
“But now it means we’ll get soaked,” I cry.
“Well, let’s hurry!”
Out of the dell we can see that half of the world is still holding strong under benevolent blue. The other half is in the storm. We run down a goat trail, sliding on the rocks. I laugh hysterically as I skid left and right across the steep path. Julia shouts caution. As we find a real footpath and run down the hill it becomes clear that we are on the dividing line.
We’re running at the edge of the weather, tracing its skirt.
The sky at sunrise: suddenly, mountains of orange and gold, a sea of pink. Rivers of light. A whole changing skyscape. Gone before I can raise anyone else in the house. But I saw it. Majestic.
Light flying toward heaven or space. Heaven—ascension—angels—words we must have invented for skies like this. A miracle of color and cloud. How could you look at this and not see BEAUTY? Beauty—a construct, yes. Beauty—subjective, yes. But... how could my heart not rise to that?
I try to send my gratitude in volleys heavenward. Then I look up and see SKY and am amazed again. Simply: I feel more thankfulness than I can give to other people. I have to do something with it, send it somewhere. Up feels right.
Here's the full Q: How do you work writing into your life? I often find myself without any time to write, or if I do have the time, I am not in the "zone". I am tired, or worn, and so I end up going for months on end without writing. That makes it hard to get better and hard to get anything done. How do you manage this?*
A: The first thing to know is that you are not alone; the practical problem of sitting down to write is one that every writer has to face. We all find our tricks for simply doing the work.
My number one piece of advice is to set a very, very small daily goal. Instead of beating yourself up for not spending three hours writing, give yourself lots of kudos for making twenty minutes (or even ten!) happen. I wrote a lot of my first novel in ten-minute chunks of writing with my students.
*Question courtesy of the National Writing Project·and readers of Figment.com for the National Day on Writing. Read highlights of the event in·this post·or listen to me and four other guests talk about the National Day on Writing for the NWP blogtalk radio program here.
My secret weapon for building classroom rapport: literacy letters to establish instant connection with studentsMonday, 14 May 2012 10:37
I'm wrapping up a semester of teaching here in Paris, which always gets me reflecting on my practice--and on the relationships I've formed with students and other teachers. Recently someone asked me how I could put up with a certain class (notoriously difficult assignment where I am), and I had occasion to share my secret weapon with her. And so I thought I'd share it with you, too.
The idea is deceptively simple, and it comes from Randy Bomer's fantastic book, Time for Meaning. (I talk about Time for Meaning more here.) Here's what you do: whatever subject you are teaching, you write a letter to your students sharing some of your experiences (positive and negative). Next, you ask students to write back to you, personally, with some of their own stories. You can give them prompts, but you also want them to have the freedom to share whatever they'd like you to know. Finally, you read the letters and write back, personally, to each student. That's it.
Now, I know that last part--writing back--might sound a bit overwhelming, especially if you are teaching high school and have many students (one semester I had 210). But even in your case, it is so worth it. You will reap much in terms of connection--and increased motivation--because of this up-front investment of time.
Why does this work? By making yourself vulnerable to students--presenting yourself as a human whose had good and bad times, not the superman/superwoman ruling the universe--you make it easier for students to be real with you. When they are honest, they often reveal their particular blocks when it comes to your subject matter (whether it's math, English, foreign language, or another topic). Their letters will humanize their struggles to you, too, making you more willing to work with them. And by asking for--and proving you have read--their stories, you show that you are actually interested in them as human beings. I talk more about teaching through weakness (or vulnerability) here.
What does a literacy letter look like? I have a whole folder of lit letters I've written over the years; here's one from one of my high school English classes to give you the idea.
I’m so glad to be here; I have high hopes for our time together. But let me get down to the point of this letter: who are we as readers and writers?
The fact that we can read and write--no matter how we feel about the subject--is a blessing we all owe to a teacher. Ms. Keyes, my kindergarten teacher, pointed a ruler at words and told the class to recite them. I hated the thwack her ruler made against the paper and the rasp of her voice calling, “Neeext?” But I loved how the words turned into pictures and ideas in my brain. Somehow, when she pointed at the word “apple,” a secret window in my mind opened to a shiny, sweet fruit. The word “forget” made me think of the sick feeling I got when I went to bed without remembering to tell my dad that I loved him.
With each book, I seemed to grow a little bit as a reader. I imagined myself as a vine climbing up a wall that extended infinitely far into the sky. There was so much to learn--how characters thought and changed; the way places influence people; what happens when tragedy strikes; the way things work in other families, countries, time periods, or planets (in science fiction, of course).
Reading never got easy, but it got GOOD. I read everywhere. I worked in a photography lab as a teenager, and I always brought my book, a dictionary, and a stack of index cards with me. While photographs developed in deep trays of chemicals, I would strain my eyes to see in the darkroom’s red light. When I came to a word I didn’t know, I would look it up and write it down on an index card. I’d even write a sentence to help me remember. (No, it was not a school assignment; I was just that dorky.) When I scan the top shelf of my book case where I put The Sound and the Fury, The God of Small Things, Snow Falling on Cedars, The Kite Runner, No Telephone to Heaven, Anna Karenina, and my other favorites, I remember the words I learned with each book.
All of this is just great, right? But my experiences with words have not been one long success story. Every time I go to Mexico, I’m reminded of how vexing it is to have an idea but not know how to express it. Since I speak Spanish as a second language, I sound like a stuck record repeating, “¿Cómo se dice…?” during conversations. And when I first starting reading in Spanish--¡Ay, Dios mio! After four pages of a novel, I felt exhausted. Writing a simple note took me an hour and lots of paper. By the end, my fingers were sliced with paper cuts from using my Spanish dictionary so much. Even now, years deeper into the language, I feel less intelligent, less interesting, and less funny when I try to express myself in Spanish. It’s like I’m a shadow of myself--a shadow with bad grammar. But the language itself is worth it. So are the relationships it’s made possible. I keep plugging away.
Don’t think that I only struggle in Spanish, either. This summer, I vowed to write a novel. For two weeks, I stared out the window and drooled. Nothing. When I wrote a sentence, it looked to me like something an inebriated Chihuahua had composed. I cried and complained. I felt sorry for myself and ate chocolate chip cookies. Then I sat back down and tried again. Instead of trying to write THE NOVEL, I focused on writing notes about the novel. “Calm down,” I coached myself, “this is not the real thing. Just write it.” I read books about writing novels. I timed my sessions at my desk to keep myself from taking a break every 35 seconds. I wrote more notes. Then--praise the Lord--I finally started THE NOVEL.
It’s not finished. I’ve got about 20 pages typed up, not the complete manuscript I hoped for. But I do know where it’s going now, and I am going to do it. I know it’ll hurt sometimes. I’ll hate the story I’m telling, and I’ll want to quit. Don’t let me, please. I need encouragement (and a little pressure), too.
All these experiences--and many more--are with me as I teach you each day. I have a passion for my subject, yet I also know that you’ve had many different experiences that may have affected how you see English, for better or worse.
In this room, there are enough stories to fill a book. You don’t have to tell me everything, but write back to me and give me a piece of who you are as a reader and writer. How do you feel when you read or write? What books or writing are important to you? Why do they matter? I’d love to hear your stories.
Sincerely, your teacher,
Keep in mind that you can change the focus of your letter depending on your subject matter. For example, when I teach Spanish as a foreign language, I focus on what it's like to encounter problems when I express myself in other languages... the point is to connect to some of the struggles your students may face.
If you find this helpful, you might also want to check out my other teacher resources here on the website.