my very own meme…sort of

You know those American Express ads in magazines with people like Tina Fey and Ellen DeGeneres where they list things about their life? I’m not sure if these ads are still out there. But I was going through some old Real Simple magazines and saw a few of those ads and I was like, Fab meme alert! So I’ve taken some items from the ads and added a few of my own and presto. I’m calling it the AmEx Mix Meme.

first memory: thirst

childhood ambition: science teacher

strange fascination: water towers

retreat: palm trees

wildest dream: west village brownstone

soundtrack: garden state

proudest moment: when it happens on the shelf

biggest challenge: inertia

alarm clock: displays lights in changing colors

perfect day: npr/gym/writing/learning/time with friends/life-altering film/reading in bed

recent impulse buy: paddywax candle – fresh grass scent

first job: secretary for the local senator when i was 16

indulgence: the office

weakness: whipped butter

inspiration: stay gold

you’re it: carriejones

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reader q&a

This Thanksgiving, I am most thankful for my readers. Reader Catherine R. asked me some questions about the writing process. I’d like to share them with you.

1. What do you think is the most important aspect of writing?

Passion. If you write about the things that you love and that fascinate you, your writing will be true. When I’m starting a new book, I think about what rocks my world and issues that I feel strongly about sharing with my readers. Passion creates energy. That energy is the fuel I use to write my books.

2. How do you get through a tough spot in your writing?

I usually don’t have serious problems with any scenes that I write as part of my first chapter outline. The harder scenes tend to appear during revisions, when I can identify what’s missing and admit that the harder stuff I avoided during earlier drafts finally needs to appear in the story. The hardest scenes to write are mainly in response to editorial letters, because they could involve major overhauls.

So what happens when I have to write one of these challenging scenes? First, there’s often a lot of grumbling and resistance. I also might go over to Crumbs for a special cupcake to pull me through. Then it’s time to get down to business. Depending on the type of scene I have to write, I’ll select music that will evoke the emotions my characters are experiencing. The right music helps me to get inside their minds and better understand their conflict. I also don’t try not to let myself get distracted by email or anything else online until I’ve written a certain amount of pages. And it’s okay to take longer to write harder scenes. You may need to think about the scene for a few days before you even write anything at all. Great ideas cannot be forced; they flow naturally on their own schedule.

3. How do you find a good publisher?

A great way way to discover which publisher would be best for you is to read books from that publisher. If you find that you like most of what you’re reading, then that publisher is a good fit. Most of my favorite YA authors are published by Viking Children’s Books (an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group), so I knew that Penguin was the best publishing house for me.

From there, you need to find out which publishers accept unsolicited manuscripts or if an agent has to submit your work. When I was trying to place When It Happens, I went to Barnes & Noble and found some resources in the Writers Trade section on publishing houses and their submission criteria.

4. Any advice on finding the perfect dialogue? Something that just flows?

I’m all about the dialogue! I’ve always loved reading books that are dialogue-centric and I love creating scenes that mostly consist of dialogue. With every book, I find that dialogue is the easiest part to write. It just comes naturally to me. And that’s the key – focus on the part of writing that comes the most naturally to you and the dialogue will follow.

Also, spy. When you’re waiting in line or at a coffeehouse, listen to what people are saying. The way they speak is real, so use what you hear as a model for dialogue structure. Of course, your characters are unique and speak in their own special ways, but spying on other conversations is a great starting point for understanding natural dialogue flow. I’m convinced that my earlier years as a Harriet the Spy fan helped me with dialogue. I had a spy route and spy notebook just like Harriet and I spent a lot of time listening to other people talk. Just don’t get caught because then they might be mad at you.

5. Any advice on getting something published? Can that be done if you are a junior in high school?

If you’ve written something incredible, there’s always a chance for it to be published. Don’t submit work unless it is your absolute best. If it is your absolute best, then proceed.

Resources are out there for younger writers, such as the Young Writers Society (for ages 13 to 25) and Young Writers Project. You can find more organizations on the Internet that can guide you in your quest. Good luck!

in which wrapping paper means something

I bought my wrapping paper last week.

Game on.

From here on out, it’s a rush of gifts and bows and menus and ribbon and cards and metallic outliners to address the cards and baking cookies and gift bags and holiday music in every single store, with no exceptions. Of course, the music has been grating on my nerves for a few weeks now and Christmas stuff has been popping up since right after Halloween. It just always seems like until I buy the wrapping paper, it’s not officially the holiday season yet. I can pretend that time is not zipping by at an alarming rate. I can ignore he fact that it’s almost 2009 (when did that happen?!). But there’s no turning back now.

The evolution of wrapping paper choice is a fascinating thing. When I was a teen, I’d wrap my gifts in Sunday comics and put little clues on the wrapping paper about the gifts. Like if I was giving someone a Little Prince journal, I might cut out a fox or a street lamp from a magazine and tape it on the wrapping paper (naturally, you can’t make the clues too obvious). Then I graduated to a sort of tissue paper/cellophane combo. I love silver, so after that came a silver phase in which everything was wrapped in silver paper or mylar sheets with metallic white bows. This year, I’m doing red foil wrapping paper. I have red and white tissue paper (some with stripes, some with dots) to go with it. And awesome bows.

I’d like to think that, because my wrapping paper choice this year was more expensive and classy, I am now a grownup. I mean, my internal age will always be 16, but doing grownup things can be fun sometimes. And who knows? I may decide to bust out the Sunday comics next year. It’s the green choice, after all.

celebrating the best

Attending the National Book Awards Finalists reading was a fabulous experience. Congrats to young people’s literature winner Judy Blundell for What I Saw and How I Lied!

I was able to reunite with fellow Viking Children’s Books author Laurie Halse Anderson, who read from her incredible Chains. She has an amazing talent for writing both young-adult and historical fiction. All of her young-adult novels are my absolute faves and Fever 1793 was so gripping that it left a lasting impact on me. When a book can make you laugh and cry and change the way you see the world, that is a remarkable achievement indeed. Here’s Laurie with BH:

Laurie Halse Anderson and Scot

Laurie let me hold her medal. I am happy to report that it is just the right weight. She was amazed at this second opportunity to win the National Book Award, but I think it’s karma. She has consistently and impressively put out such substantial, shattering, inspiring work, that how can she not be nominated again?

Thought: Contemporary poetry rocks. This is not the dusty poetry of back in the day that we had to decode in high school English during the mandatory poetry unit every year that I completely dreaded. What a snore that stuff was. But if we had read fantastic poetry from this century, I might now have a more authentic love for poetry that extends beyond E. E. Cummings. Things have definitely changed, and I do hope that high school curricula will be updated to reflect this evolution.

The poetry winner was Mark Doty for Fire to Fire: New and Collected Poems. It includes such astute observations as “all things by nature are ready to get worse.” He wrote about the Pulaski Skyway and other random details I didn’t know anyone else noticed, ones that depict a bittersweet time of our lives so perfectly. That’s what’s so amazing about all of these finalists. They tell the stories of our lives in a way that is relatable and true, a way that connects us all. Kudos!

justin & ponyboy

The winner of the Stealing Heaven contest is Carmen T. Congrats to you! I was surprised that so many people said they’d want books if they could have any material item for free. That gives me hope for the future because you guys clearly love to read. Personally, I would have said a $23 million West Village brownstone. But hey, books are essential, like air and water.

So I was in a hotel a while ago and caught a glimpse of something on TV. I only saw part of this show for a few seconds and I was immediately like, Whatever that is, I need to know it. When I got home, I Googled Rachel Griffiths and the show turned out to be Brothers & Sisters. Why has no one told me about this show?! It’s so freaking good! I’ve already Netflixed seasons one and two (no season three spoilers, please). It’s going to be really hard to wait for season three to come out on DVD. That’s why I turn it around into sweet anticipation, like I do with The Office.

One of the most entertaining things about Brothers & Sisters is Justin (Dave Annable). When I saw those few seconds of the show before I knew what I was looking at, I totally thought he was C. Thomas Howell. Then I had a reality check and realized how much older C. Thomas Howell is now. I have this thing where everyone is stuck in 1980-whatever and that’s the way they will always look in my mind. Like, David Letterman has gray hair? When the ef did that happen? Last time I checked, dude was in his 40s. Anyway, my love for Ponyboy Curtis knows no limits, so this comparison is warranted:

C. Thomas Howell     Dave Annable

Hmm. I’m definitely on to something.

the arc of a love affair

1988: Wrote Paul Simon lyrics all over my Keds way before doing that kind of thing was accepted as cool (I was nerd chic like that). Had this thing where I’d trace my hand with a metallic outliner on my binder cover and write Paul Simon lyrics inside. Obsessed with visions of streetlights and city sounds and sunsets sifting through trees and every other picture Paul Simon painted in his songs. Felt the magic of New York City in his songs and knew it would feel like home to live there (here). Wished for a book of Paul Simon lyrics so I could cherish them all together.

2008: My wish came true.

Paul Simon's Lyrics

How brilliant is this? Lyrics to all of Paul Simon’s songs are included in this new book, Lyrics 1964-2008. Paul was at Barnes & Noble last night and I was planning to get there at 4:00 for his 7:00 interview. So of course I’ve been smacked down with a nasty case of food poisoning for the past two days and there was no way I could go. But I have this book. And I have my memories.

Some of my favorite lyrics, from “Train in the Distance”:

The thought that life could be better
Is woven indelibly
Into our hearts
And our brains

And from “Bookends Theme”:

Long ago…it must be…
I have a photograph
Preserve your memories
They’re all that’s left you