Crazy amazing news

So this is how life works, sometimes.

You’re sitting on a school bus surrounded by your 7-year-old daughter and her first grade classmates, bumping your way down the mountain from a field trip at a nature preserve. Oh, look. You’ve finally got cell phone reception again and can check your email. You don’t expect to see anything interesting. You’re just kind of bored and don’t want to listen to the kids sing something called “The Fart Song” for the 84th time.

But, holy shit. There actually is something interesting. You know, just, like, an email from your agent, telling you that your editor has OFFERED YOU ANOTHER TWO-BOOK DEAL.

Mind you, I have not written two more books. These are two books that have yet to be conceived, developed, drafted, pitched, or anything else that would make them more than a twinkle in my eye. They’re simply books that HarperCollins wants me to write, and books they want to publish. Because they really, really like me.

Did I already say holy shit? Not with capitals. Now I’m saying it with capitals. Holy Shit. Now I’m saying it with a face like this:

This new contract came as a complete surprise to me, and I could not be more thrilled. The fact that my editor, Rosemary Brosnan, and everyone else at HarperCollins Children’s is that excited about “You Look Different In Real Life,” the fact that they have faith in me to keep writing YA books that people want to read, the fact that they want to make this kind of investment in my career…well, there are no words. There is only this:

I’ve been so embedded in revisions for “You Look Different” that I haven’t been able to think much about books #3 and #4. But I do have a sensation. I know what kind of story I want to take on next and how the experience might feel to a reader. I’ve never started from that place before, so this should be interesting. In the meantime, I’m psyched to be able to share the big news, and grateful to all the people who helped make it a possibility, especially everyone who has supported “The Beginning of After” on its continuing journey. I really feel like an Author now.

Best. Bus ride. Ever.

On revision

Okay, I know this is a really boring picture. But I needed a visual aid. Plus, libraries just make me happy.

Due to some uninteresting-and-too-complicated-to-explain circumstances, I’m writing this from the Chappaqua Library in Chappaqua, NY. This is where I often did research for school assignments when I was a kid, and I’m appreciating the symmetry here because today I’ve spent the last few hours on manuscript revision, and that sure as hell feels like another assignment. It’s one I’m so grateful to have, though.

I didn’t expect to get a three-month break from “You Look Different In Real Life” (hereafter referred to as the rather fugly acronym YLDIRL), but thanks to my editor being a little busy, that’s what happened and holy crap, did I need it. Because this past Monday I sat down and started work again, and I must have been truly ready because I only played one game of online Mahjongg before dusting off my Scrivener file for the book.

It helps to have an editor like Rosemary Brosnan. I often say that working with her is like getting paid to take a Master Class in revising a novel. During the nearly soul-crushing intense months of writing the first draft, I had no perspective on whether or not I was accomplishing what I wanted with this story. But now, thanks to Rosemary, there’s brilliant perspective and a road map and sharpening tools, and many more clashing metaphors I could throw in there. I feel like I know what I’m doing. Maybe that’s because I have one trip through this process already behind me, and maybe because this draft is just closer, in general. Perhaps I actually got better at, you know, writing. Or I simply got lucky this time around.

It is so very hard to know when a book is finished. In a way, it never is, but you have to close the file at some point. With “The Beginning of After,” I had already done a heavy round of rewrites with my agent before we sent the manuscript out on submission. Then, after Rosemary acquired it for HarperCollins, she sent me a nine-page editorial letter that almost made me throw up. (I do not exaggerate, especially in puke-related matters.) Because she was asking me to essentially rewrite the entire middle of the story, and at first I didn’t think I could possibly sweat and bleed and cry over that book anymore, after the years I’d already spent doing just that. I wanted it to be done and published and out there, and for my career as an author to really begin.

Gonna stop working now and check out that copy of Relix magazine with the Avett Brothers on the cover. It's been whispering to me all afternoon.

But I did it. I got to a higher place, creatively. And the book was much, much better as a result. Now Rosemary tells me, “Oh, nine pages of editorial notes almost made you sick? Pah! That’s nothing!” Shudder. Fortunately, I got less than nine pages of notes this time and no barfing instinct was activated.

Sitting in the Chappaqua library (and still fantasizing that Bill or Hilary will drop in right now to peruse the Teen section), I’m trying to remember if I was psyched about any of the papers I had to research here. I can’t imagine I was, at least not the way I am today. Because this level of passion, of joy in learning more about myself and my writing with every day spent working on this manuscript, is something new in my life. Incredibly special. A blessing, really. I can’t wait to get back to work tomorrow and continue crafting YLDIRL into what I know it can and will be.

Uh, yeah. That acronym. Not working. Let’s just go with “You Look Different” as a nickname, shall we? Thanks.

Thankful for drama in my life

I recently got caught up in my local school budget election. I’ll spare you the gory details, but suffice it to say that the whole thing was a suckfest, just like it was a suckfest for most school districts across the U.S., and will continue to be for a while. Or longer. Funding for public education in America is a twisted, broken thing and I can only hope that folks are finally angry enough to spark some fixing. I’m just thankful to the people in every community — the school boards, the administrators, the teachers and staff and parents — who are doing the best they can under challenging circumstances.

There have been many cuts to the extracurricular activities at our well-rated high school (Top 4% in the country according to Newsweek! Hollah!). Each one hurts, and each one hurts differently to different people. For me, the one that pierces deepest is the Drama Club. They spared the annual spring musical but the fall play is gone-o. If you sense another one of my stories coming on, you’re right.

I’ve spoken often about how I’ve always been a writer, a little kid pounding out poems and short stories on an IBM Selectric and then, later, a TRS-80 computer. When I talk to students at school visits, I show them my old journals and discuss how writing gave me a voice when I could barely summon the courage to ask someone for directions. Writing was The Thing that made me feel unique, shaped my dreams for the future, and helped me figure out who I might possibly be. But it didn’t happen without the help of some other experiences.

I was totally okay with playing a leper in my camp production of "Jesus Christ Superstar." Really, I was.

I was also (and still am, proudly) a theatre geek. I loved watching it, performing it, creating it. As a child, I was always pretending to be someone else. I could sing well and liked being onstage, but when it mattered, my lack of confidence always betrayed me and I never got any of the roles I auditioned for in school productions. I settled for being in the chorus and getting an occasional solo. The summer after 8th grade, I went away to performing arts camp and came back a little louder and braver. I started high school and found my way to the Drama Club, a group of kids who, like me, hovered on the fringes of social radar. We were neither popular nor persecuted, but all had that “there’s more to us than meets the eye, if you’d bother to know us” thing going on. When we did a production of “The Crucible,” I had a few lines as Mercy Lewis, one of the girls who pretend to be victims of John Proctor’s witchcraft (yes, just like Meg in “The Beginning of After”). I didn’t think I wanted the lead or even a big part. I accepted the roles I’d been given, the roles that said again and again, “You’re good, but you’re not special.”

Then, in the spring of sophomore year, something happened. Our Drama Club adviser decided to stage a pair of one-acts by Harold Pinter, one of which was a deeply weird play called “The Room.” The main character, Rose, is nervous and insecure, conflicted and full of repressed emotion. In other words, she was me. For whatever reason, our adviser saw that and gave me my first leading role. Rose carries that piece and I worked incredibly hard on it, so grateful to finally be center-stage-special. I believe I did her justice, in my 15-year-old way. The following fall, I got cast as a lead again, as Martha in “The Children’s Hour.” Martha is nervous and insecure, conflicted and full of repressed emotion. Okay, yeah. There’s a pattern here. But I killed that part.

As Martha Dobie. Please excuse the bad suit.

Playing these two roles, crawling inside the words written by the playwrights and finding the cores of these women, helped me see some new things about myself and what I was really afraid of. I became less afraid of it, and opened up. I relaxed and got out of my own damn way. I knew what it was like to finally be part of a whole and exist in a group that’s working toward the same thing. I became friends with people outside my little clique, people I never would have spoken to otherwise. This confidence spilled over into my writing and the subjects I tackled. The rest of my high school career looked quite different after all that.

When I got to college, too many new things tempted my time and I never circled back to drama. Which makes me very sad, in retrospect. But I honor those Drama Club years by recognizing how they gifted me skills I’ve relied heavily on in my professional and personal lives. As in, the way I hear dialogue in my head and can write it to sound natural. Being able to really build a character and live in his or her skin. Getting up the nerve to speak in large groups and not die of embarrassment. I could go on, but I’ll just say that I believe the research about how being involved in a theatre production helps students get better at creative problem-solving, social interaction, and cooperation. There are times when I honestly don’t think I could have become a working writer if I hadn’t also been a performer at one point.

Here in my town, the Drama Club is not going gently into that good night. There are efforts afoot to raise the money needed to keep it going, along with many other arts programs. Because people Get It. This stuff Matters. My story is far from unique and actually, relatively dull, if you look at how significant and even life-changing an impact the performing arts can have on a young person. But I tell it as part of a promise that I, for one, will continue to fight to make these opportunities available to those who want them. Those few years are forever a part of me and everything I do now.