Saturday, December 29, 2007

May the Force be with All of You this New Year -- Robin

Who was I kidding when I thought I’d actually get some writing done over the holidays!? I think I have a problem understanding the difference between “what I’d like to get done” and “real life.”

With a five-year-old around, Christmas has become a two-month-long extravaganza of baking and wrapping and decorating and watching that classic Rudolph claymation movie over and over. Which, by the way, the Disco Mermaids and their spouses sat down to watch together and gave a running commentary while my boy shushed us. (Don’t even get us started on Santa’s lack of political correctness in that show!)

One of my son’s favorite gifts this year was a Star Wars themed gift from my parents that included the original 1977 movie, along with an action figure for each main character. My son had never seen the movie, but somehow pop culture had seeped into his young brain and he made it very clear that “there’s a bad guy named Darth Vader and he’s super cool.”

So Christmas night, we all sat down as a family and watched Star Wars. My boy was mesmerized…and only a little scared. (But I was scared too when they were stuck in that nasty trash compactor that was closing in on them while a huge cyborg snake attacked. Yikes!)

While my boy watched the movie, my husband and I analyzed Star Wars and tried to figure out why a movie made in the late 70s on a relatively small budget turned into such a massive empire (for lack of a better word) and earned billions and billions of dollars. We decided it was because of three things:

  1. For the time, the special effects were awesome. Lasers, man! There were lasers!!
  2. There was a villain. A very bad villain. He was scary looking and made weird throaty sounds. Good stuff.
  3. It was serious, but more importantly…very funny. I loved how there was the serious theme of “the force” and how there’s an energy in the universe which connects us all. (By the way, when I was a kid, I thought “the force” meant brightly colored lasers that protected you like a bubble. Seriously.) But then there was Han Solo who gave us comic relief (and he wasn’t so bad to look at either). I think it was the combination of serious and funny that made the movie accessible to both adults and kids.

So that tells me, in my next book, I need some cool technology, a super cool villain, a serious storyline, and lots of humor. See!? Maybe all this holiday activity was helping my writing after all.

- Robin

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions -- Jay

Christmas was great, thanks for asking!

I spent five days in the beautiful Santa Cruz mountains with my wife’s family. Except for being stuffed-up the entire time (which often made me too embarrassed to talk) and the hernia I got last week (which kept me at home during some family hikes), it was wonderful.

But those five days made me re-examine my life's passions…or lack thereof.

Not too long ago, my brother-in-law picked up an accordion and dove into learning the instrument with such commitment that he’s recently been touring with an amazing band, 3 Leg Torso. That same b-i-l also knows everything there is to know about coffee (he even roasts his own beans and brought a portable espresso-maker to Christmas so no one ever got tired before midnight). One of my sisters-in-law is an amazing aerial silk acrobat (it involves ribbon-like material dangling from up high, from which she performs all sorts of death-defying tricks) and even installed the ribbons to the ceiling of her A-frame. That same s-i-l, along with her boyfriend, ride unicycles together and even set up an elaborate obstacle course in their yard.

I could go on and on, but I’m going to stop talking about them because I’m getting depressed (don’t even get me started on the harmonies my wife and her sisters can produce). Over the vacation, I also finished reading Backyard Giants by Susan Warren, subtitled: The Passionate, Heartbreaking, and Glorious Quest to Grow the Biggest Pumpkin Ever. Now, I have no desire to grow humongous squash, play the accordion, excel at unicycling, or tangle-up my limbs in ribbon (though I just might try roasting my own coffee), but I’ve decided to find a quirky passion to call my own before the new year arrives.

Yes, writing books is a passion of mine. But now that writing has moved beyond being just a hobby, I need something that will occasionally avert my mind from worrying about writing and promoting my book. I need something which comes with absolutely no expectations...other my own.

Here are the top two considerations I came up with on my three-hour drive home:
  • Stand-up comedy
  • Extremely healthy cooking

Stand-up comedy has been a dream of mine for years. But it wasn’t until this year, because of promoting my book, that I realized how much I love speaking to large groups...and that I can do it without barfing before they call me to the stage.

I haven’t mentioned the extremely healthy cooking option to my wife yet (and don’t worry, she’s still up in the internet-less woods, so she probably won’t read this post), because I know she’ll try to sway me towards this option due to entirely selfish reasons.

Outside of writing or reading, what are some of your unique passions? What’s something you immerse yourself in? Something you can’t learn enough about? I’m looking to add to my list before presenting it to my wife, so maybe the extremely healthy cooking option won't stick out so much.

- Jay

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Dear Santa...

(This is a repost of the conclusion to a 13-part series which jumpstarted our blog two years ago.)


THE TWELVE FORM REJECTIONS
(inspired by The Twelve Days of Christmas)

In my twelfth form rejection, the letter said to me:
Dear Author/Illustrator,
regarding (CAPS & BOLDFACE TITLE),
thanks for your submission,
we're so glad you thought of our house,
we're proud of ev'ry book we publish,
see Writer's Market for our guidelines,
due to the number of submissions,
we can't give personal suggestions,
though we strive for quick responses,
after careful consideration,
good luck in the future,
but this story doesn't fit our current needs.

So I cried for just a minute, and then
(surging with ambition)
tucked a self-addressed-stamped-envelope
into my next submission.



HAPPY HOLIDAYS
from your
Disco Mermaids

Sunday, December 23, 2007

My New Literary Crush -- Eve

C’mon, we all have them. As a kid, it was S.E. Hinton. When I began writing for kids, it was Robert Sabuda. I heard him speak at an SCBWI conference. He was adorable and hilarious. And I fell. Hard. I bought every one of his pop-up books, sat front-and-center in all his workshops, and even paged him over the microphone during the after-hours party when I couldn’t find him. K, two words: Restraining. Order.

But I digress.

When I started writing for teens, my crush was Laurie Halse Anderson. I must’ve read Speak 1,000 times to study her mastery of dialogue and teen-think. Then it was Walter Dean Myers. Everything he writes is pure genius! Brilliant and authentic details paint perfect portraits of today’s youth. Then Alan Lawrence Sitomer. Nothing gratuitous. Nothing false. Just completely real. Then it was Dave Eggers. Reading his books, meeting him, and working for his 826 L.A. nonprofit organization absolutely changed my life and the course of my writing. His generosity and compassion for today’s disadvantaged youth is unmatched, and I consider him to be one of the most talented and altruistic people on the planet.

Not only do I take my crushes seriously, but I maintain them over time and keep adding to the list. Call me fickle. Or promiscuous. Or something. As a slow (and recovering reluctant) reader, it takes a lot for me to fall for an author. He/she must grab my attention from word one...and never let go. No flowery language or soggy middles or unnecessarily large words. And he/she must make me laugh. Even if it’s in a sarcastic, twisted, not necessarily funny to normal people kind of way.

My new crush is Brad Herzog, picture book writer and travel writer extraordinaire. His books States of Mind and Small World are love-letters to America, journals of his treks via Winnebago through the 48 contiguous states. He illustrates beautifully what I’ve always believed. Although people often think that exotic travel must include passports, shots, and malaria pills, there is a world of wonder, with interesting and diverse people and subcultures, right in our own country. Who knew??

True story: When I moved to New Hampshire in 1993, many of my college friends couldn’t find it on a map. A few didn’t even know it was its own state! One girlfriend said, “New Hampshire? That’s in Massachusetts, right?” I love that Mr. Herzog celebrates small town America and debunks the myth that small towns equal small minds, and that back roads equal backwards thinking. I knew this was a match made in heaven when I found my very own teeny tiny New Hampshire town featured in States of Mind. There’s even a picture of an old friend of mine chairing a town hall meeting!

After meeting and befriending Brad (we’re on BFF, first-name basis now), I read his books and fell really hard for his writing style and his ability to weave humor with history and universal human truths. This crush has even inspired me to re-structure my YA work-in-progress into the form of a travel diary, where my main character seeks, as Brad would say, “to cleanse one’s soul, restore one’s confidence and cure the virus of restlessness” through travel. Bonus is that the guy returns my calls and emails, and there’s been no mention of the words “Restraining Order.”

Yet.

Brad recently discovered that States of Mind is included on high school AP Geography reading lists. Which, to me, is just plain brilliant. If we were assigned books like this in high school, I would have been way more interested in Geography and American History. And my girlfriend would be able to find New Hampshire, the state, on a U.S. map!

- Eve

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Merry Critiquing! -- Robin

Every year, Eve, Jay, and I join our children’s writers critique group for a holiday lunch celebration. About eight to ten of us gather around a long table on the garden patio of a local Italian restaurant and enjoy the fresh air as we sit next to glowing red heaters. (The heaters are a prerequisite of mine since I’m whiney when I’m cold.)

Our conversation always turns to discussing our favorite books of the year. This year it was a very special conversation since we found ourselves talking about one book in particular. Jay’s!

It was so fun hearing reactions to Jay’s book from other writers who know exactly what makes a good book for teens. To me, sitting around eating pasta and talking about a good book (especially when that book is written by one of your best friends) is just heaven. (Okay, so the heaters helped, too.)

After we were full on carbs, we had our annual book exchange. There’s only one guideline to follow…we each bring a book we think someone else will like. (I brought Kiki Strike, Eve brought Boy Proof, and Jay brought Miss Spitfire.) One person picks a wrapped book to open and the next person gets to steal one of the previously opened books or pick another one. Sounds like a sweet idea, but it gets brutal. I ended up with a copy of Twilight (but only after a sneaky under-the-table deal involving lots of whispers and inappropriate sign language).

In the end, I think we all went home happy with our new books. As Jay, Eve, and I walked from the restaurant to a coffee shop to continue the celebration, we reminisced that it was two years ago to the day that Jay turned to us and said, “I think the three of us should start a blog together.”

And in response, Eve and I looked at each other and said, “What’s a blog?”

- Robin

Monday, December 17, 2007

To Vagueness...and Beyond -- Jay

Last year, I told you about visiting Disneyland with my wife, and how competitive she can be. Well, it recently happened again. I won the first round of Buzz Lightyear's Astro Blasters...


...but she made me ride it one more time in order to put me in my place.


Ahh, marriage!

Okay, now on to the real meat of this post:

I love vague endings.

Not quirky-vague endings (which leave you scratching your head), but intentionally vague endings that enrich the storytelling experience. I love endings which allow us to use everything we know about the characters to determine what happens next. Or, at least, to guess what happens next.

For me, the perfect example of a successfully vague ending occurs in Lost in Translation. If you don’t like this movie, fine. I know there are a whole bunch of you out there. But I love it. Yet I never recommend it without saying, “There’s a really good chance you won’t like it. It’s kind of...vague.”

The movie is made up entirely of little moments. Little looks. Little gestures. Little phrases. And if you watch it without a willingness to appreciate all of its littleness, you’re not gonna like it. But if you fall in love with its littleness, then its vague ending will seem perfect. Because the ending is another little moment…which, this time, we aren’t allowed to fully witness. The ending is a whisper too soft, and too guarded, to comprehend. It’s a moment shared between the two characters, but it’s not meant for our ears.

What? The final line of the movie is never shared with the audience?

That's right. And it's perfect that way! How weird is that!?!?

But then, last week, Eve sent me the following YouTube clip. In it, someone used digital manipulation to decode that whisper. When I first began watching it, I started sweating. Should I continue watching it? Then I started ripping hairs out of my head. Should I continue watching it? Then I started shaking. Should I…?



I watched the whole dang thing.

And I was so mad. I was mad at Eve for throwing me into such inner-turmoil. I was mad at myself for deciding to ruin the magic of that little moment forever. I was mad at the whisper for being so…vague.

That’s it? That’s all Bill whispers into Scarlett’s ear?

And then I was happy. Because the entire movie, even with its revealed secret ending, was still perfectly vague.

Yes, sometimes the perfect ending is one which allows the viewer (or reader!) to decide what happens next…or what just occurred. For example, at the end of my next book, I decided to

- Jay

Saturday, December 15, 2007

On Being a Writer -- Robin

About once a year I re-read my copy of On Writing by Stephen King. Every time I read it, I learn something new. It is hands-down one of the best books on writing ever written.

After describing his difficulties in life and how his success came about (which is totally fascinating) he writes a chapter called “Toolbox” where he gets to the nitty-gritty of writing. Here’s one of my favorite quotes (one of many):

Put your vocabulary on the top shelf of your toolbox, and don’t make any conscious effort to improve it. One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones. This is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes. The pet is embarrassed and the person who committed this act of premeditated cuteness should be even more embarrassed.
(I didn’t continue with the quote because it involved curse words. Good ones, too.)

I love Stephen King. And I want to be him. So today, I tried it out. I decided I would be Stephen King.

In the book, he describes his writing schedule. Basically, he writes in the morning until around noon, or until he has ten pages written…whichever comes first. Then he has lunch, takes a nap, and goes for a walk. (True, his afternoon walk almost killed him once, but that’s another story.) Just the fact that he is such a talented and prolific writer, yet has such a simple schedule, made me feel…relieved. For some reason, I assumed people with his success were writing into the wee hours of the night, pulling out their hair, and kicking their dog. I was curious to see if his simple schedule would work for me.

I worked extra hours at my day job earlier in the week and devoted my entire Friday to what I like to refer to as…Being Stephen King Day. (It could catch on!)

I shoved my child off to school by 8:30, ate some breakfast, and was in my writing room by 9. (Okay, fine. 9:10. But Regis and Kelly had Anderson Cooper on, and I find him strangely attractive.)

I wrote straight through until noon. I didn’t get ten pages done, but I got a lot done. More than usual. (And for me, “more than usual” is a reason to celebrate.) I ate my lunch, went for a nice long run on a cliff trail overlooking the Pacific, jotted down some ideas for my next chapter, showered, applied some mascara and lipgloss, vacuumed real quick, and went to pick up my son from school. That was it. Being Stephen King Day had come to an end.

It…was…heaven.

Me and Stephen King are now exactly the same (except for the fact that we’re completely different). I now have to get back to my old schedule of work-laundry-groceries-homework-work-laundry-groceries-homework...while he gets to go back to being fabulous.

But at least I got to be him for a day. (Please know that if I actually was Stephen King, I think I’d purchase cuter eyeglasses.)

What about you guys? What type of schedule works for you? Any Stephen King-ers out there?

- Robin


Okay, one more favorite quote from the book:

Writing is not life, but I think that sometimes it can be a way back to life.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Happy (Belated) Blogiversary!!!


We get asked this question a lot, and yes, sometimes it does feel like we're married. (You know, if this were a polygamous marriage between three already married friends.) Need an example?

We forgot our second blogiversary!!!

Last year, we were so excited to reach the one-year mark that we even wrote a song about it. But this year? It totally slipped our collective mind. And now we're already a whole week closer to our third blogiversary!

But that's okay, because year three is gonna be great. We've even got a few tricks up our sleeves to make sure of it.

And most important of all, we can't wait to see the good fortune that falls upon all of you over the next year...minus one week!

- Your Disco Mermaids (Robin, Jay, and Eve)

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

What's It All About, Evie? -Eve

I get this question daily from friends, relatives, students, the carpet cleaning guys, my dentist, and all the shopkeepers in downtown SLO who see me on a regular basis when I’m supposed to be writing, but accidentally end up shopping. “What’s your book about?” is always a tough one to answer succinctly. Although I have the standard “elevator pitch” answer, lately I’ve been altering it, depending on who’s asking.

Like, when the deli counter guy asks, the answer is, “It’s a modern day Lord of the Flies set in a mountain summer camp for inner city kids, where a friendly game of Capture The Flag develops into a war over boundaries and reputation, and ultimately parallels the evolution of contemporary Los Angeles street gangs; specifically, the Bloods and the Crips.”

However, when my girlfriend’s 10-year-old son asks, the answer is more like, “It’s a story about a tough 14-year-old kid who’s recently lost his family in a fire, and he’s sent to a mountain summer camp, where he has some crazy adventures, becomes an accidental hero, and learns that life will go on.”

When a 14-year-old tough kid I’m tutoring asks, the answer is, “It’s about a kid, a lot like you, who gets into trouble with the law because he can’t control his rage over losing his family. He goes to a summer camp and, just as he starts to turn his life around, he becomes the leader of a gang and gets tangled up in a violent revenge war.”

When my guidance counselor friend asks, the answer is, “It’s a story about a troubled 14-year-old inner city kid who’s suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after losing his family in a house fire. He’s sent to a mountain summer camp, where he creates a new family through the formation of a gang; the boys protect each other at all costs and ultimately face and overcome their demons together.”

What I’m realizing is that the story is different things to different people, depending on their ages and life experiences. On the surface, RING OF FIRE is about typical adolescent boy stuff like girls, pranks, sports, fights, and becoming a man. On another level it’s about finding family units in unexpected places, vision quests, superheroes, bears, teamwork, new experiences, fight or flight responses to stress, the violent nature of humans and animals, and overcoming depression.

But, deep down in my heart, it’s about prejudice. How prejudices of other races, classes and genders affects society and the individual. And how the universal human need for safety and belonging leads to the formation of tightly devoted gang units. The story hesitates to judge whether the creation of gangs is good or bad, but rather explores how and why they form. To me, gangs can be both good and bad. Just like people. So, that, my friends, is what RING OF FIRE is all about. Thanks for listening!

Eve

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Christmas Eve (& Jay & Robin)

Jay and his wife had a Christmas shindig at their house on Saturday night. Though the event took place over several hours, "book talk" lasted no more than five minutes...a record for when the Disco Mermaids get together.

We went caroling in a well-lit (with Christmas lights!) neighborhood...


We bundled up to keep warm (and yes, Eve's wearing a Mrs. Claus jacket)...


The only way to put a temporary hold on a game of "Betcha can't get me!" was for Jay to ask Robin's son to stop and pose for a photo (his dad's a photographer, so he Loves the Lens)...


And then there was the White Elephant Gift Exchange. The prize for Most Steals went to Robin's son, who finally ended up with a life-size (well, for him) girlfriend...

Thursday, December 06, 2007

My Other Life -- Robin

Some of you may not know this, but I lead a secret double life. (No, not that kind of double life. And definitely not that!) The truth is, when I’m not writing goofy stories for kids, I’m a social worker. My job is to get services, like speech or occupational therapy, for children with disabilities (cerebral palsy, autism, mental retardation, etc…).

It’s a challenging job. A meaningful job. A serious job with not a lot of laughs. So most people I work with don’t realize that I spend half of my day with them being serious, and the other half writing goofy stories and doing goofy things such as this, and this, and one time I even did this.

So recently, when my “serious” job and my “goofy writing” job collided, it was…weird. I was about to start a meeting (along with various therapists, behaviorists, and other social worker-types) with the parents of a young boy with autism. Just before I started, the mother said, “Robin, I didn’t realize you were a children’s book writer, too.”

I was shocked! How did she find out!? I looked down to see if I was wearing a t-shirt that said, Don’t You Realize I’m a Children’s Book Writer, Too? But I wasn’t. I just had on my regular social-worker-brown jacket.

“How did you know?” I asked.

She said she read this article in the newspaper about my friend. “I think his name is Jay,” she said.

So there I was, in the middle of a bunch of serious clinical people explaining about my other life of writing goofy stories and hanging out with Jay and Eve. Luckily, the mother gave me a big smile and said, “That is so cool.”

Most of the other people were smiling at me, too. But one of the social workers just tilted her head at me and had a scrunched up, painful look on her face. She didn’t say a word, but I could tell exactly what she was thinking. We’re social workers. We’re not silly people.

But for me, being serious and silly is the perfect combination.

- Robin

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

A Literary Homecoming -- Jay

A couple weeks ago, I received an e-mail from one of my old high school teachers. He was in a faculty book club at the school and they had just finished reading Thirteen Reasons Why. He was hoping I’d come back to school to discuss it.

Gulp!

So there I was, during lunch hour, in the conference room of my old high school library. The library looked the same as when I was a student there (except for the computers...and the fact that the trusty ol' card catalogue was a relic for display purposes only). I sat at one end of the room facing a bunch of empty chairs. And slowly, they started filing in. Who? A bunch of students and...my teachers!
  • Mr. Huttle, my Peer Communications teacher.
  • Ms. Avery, my American Lit. teacher.
  • Ms. Waterbury, my Tiny Tigers (an on-campus, student-run pre-school) teacher.
  • Ms. Porter.
  • Mr. Tedone.
It was surreal to hear students currently enrolled at my old high school, and my own teachers, discussing my book...which is set at that very school. But two moments stood out the most for me:

1. When signing Ms. Waterbury’s book, she reminisced about when I was a student of hers and how I told her I was going to one day become a children’s book writer. That was interesting, because I honestly didn’t remember wanting to do this that far back. I’ve been telling people it was a college-revelation. I guess I’m going to have to go back and revise my autobiography. (By the way, that was totally a joke. I’m not cocky enough to have written my autobiography...yet. But I do have a really good title for when I do!)

2. Sitting in the front row during my presentation was Ms. Avery. As juniors, we read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in her class. I would get so frustrated by her because she insisted that Mark Twain put tons of symbolism and extended metaphors in there on purpose. At the time, I insisted that she was reading too much into it. Same thing went for all those ironic statements and recurring themes she made us look for. I felt she was making it up simply so she had something to test us on. Now, every time I add a little symbolism or insert a subtle metaphor, I thank Ms. Avery for awakening my eyes to the powers of such literary tools. But during my presentation, I kept looking at everyone in the room except Ms. Avery. Because if anyone in that room was able to point out my literary weaknesses, it would've been her. But when I was done, she approached me, and...and...well, I'm not going to say what she told me (partly cuz it'd give away key parts of the book). Let's just say that the woman who found faults in my high school Huckleberry arguments (and there were plenty) was extremely complimentary about my use of ironically symbolic thematic metaphors.

I suppose I learned something in her class after all! Now, if I could only retake that final exam...

- Jay


Here are the first two pages from my 15-year-old copy of Huckleberry Finn:


Monday, December 03, 2007

Big Love in Big Sur

Before we begin this post, we'd like to settle something once and for all. No, the Disco Mermaids are not connected at the hips. Occasionally, we do attend writing events solo. For example, just this past weekend, Eve attended the Big Sur Children's Writing Workshop about two hours away all by herself. So there!

And now...onto the post:

After being away from Eve for much more than 24 hours, Robin and Jay started to feel tugs on their metaphorical Mermaid-umbilical cords. So, prompted by a strange urge, they hopped in a car and headed north on Highway 1.

"Hmm... Isn't this near Big Sur?"


Sure enough, they found themselves outside a dining hall, where faculty and students of the B.S.C.W.W. were eating dinner. The duo just happened to be carrying a vase of roses addressed to Eve, which Robin asked a waiter to secretly deliver while she and Jay watched from outside.

"I see her! And she looks totally confused."


The plan was to leave Eve baffled for several minutes, then sneak up behind her and catch her look-o-surprise on camera to share with all of you. Unfortunately, the clueless waiter (who we'll refer to as Thomas) told her the flowers were from a girl standing outside named Robin. When Eve stood up, Jay and Robin took off running. But Jay was too close to the window when Eve reached the lobby...and she caught him mid-stride.

[Since Eve wasn't camera-ready, this is only a dramatization of what she saw.]


So Robin and Jay came inside where it was warm. A bewildered Laura Rennert, agent to both Eve and Jay (Robin feels the need to have her own agent), commented on the unusual relationship of the Mermaids.

[With a 2/3 majority, Laura was voted our favorite literary agent.]


Eve introduced Robin and Jay to the amazing faculty, made up of authors, agents, and editors. Of course, we just had to get a photo with our favorite Little, Brown editor.

[Alvina Ling, as you know, is also a Blue Rose Girl.]


As with all good things, the visit came to an end. Robin and Jay needed to drive home before they got too sleepy (or their spouses got too worried). And Eve had revisions to work on before the next day's critiques.

"I'll be home soon. Miss me!"

Friday, November 30, 2007

Keeping it Real, Man -- Eve

I’m at the Big Sur Children’s Writing Workshop for three days of writing, critiquing, writing some more, then revising and re-writing some more. I had planned to work on my second book, a YA love story weaved into an ethics debate on the ramifications of genetic testing. Sounds strange, I know, but somehow it works.

Anyway, my plans were thrown for a little loop after a recent chat with my agent about my first book…a middle grade novel about tough inner city kids at a summer camp, which is really a subtle allegory for the evolution of contemporary street gangs. The question we came up with is:

How real can you get in terms of edgy themes and violence in a middle grade book?

Granted, this is definitely an upper middle grade read aimed at the 11-13 crowd. However, even with a somewhat “toned down” version of what gang life can become, the story still contains some elements that pre-teens may find too disturbing. Here’s my thing: If I tone it down too much, it may lose its authenticity. If an 11-year-old kid from the hood picks it up, he may expect to find some of himself in the characters, which is my goal. Chances are, this kid has witnessed violent acts on the streets or lost loved ones to them. Hate to say it, but if an upper middle class kid picks up the same book, he may be horrified by what some of the characters go through. Of course maybe he’s seen plenty of violence and inhumane acts in movies (Hello… Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, Saw) or in video games, but maybe he’s never seen it in real life. (Which is not to say that rich kids don’t experience violence and only poor kids do, but for the sake of argument, I’m simplifying, of course.)

So, my problem is this: Whether the readers are rich kids, poor kids, or Sudanese kids, do we owe it to them to present life as it really is, or do we protect them from it? If I’m making a statement about violence, which I suppose I am with this book, which is that generally it’s senseless, but it’s pervasive nonetheless as long as humans inhabit the planet, and occasionally it’s necessary for protective purposes, so we as individuals must decide if and how we’ll add to the cycle, then we have to accept the consequences (i.e. retaliation, incarceration, injury, death, etc...), then I should keep it real, right?

Originally, I insisted that this was a middle grade book because the characters are 13 and many kids are initiated into gangs at age 11. But I’m guessing that most kids who read the book will never have been initiated into a real gang, and couldn’t possibly relate to some of the issues. Then again, I’m not writing about those kids, I’m writing about those who have seen uniquely horrific things at young ages.

Rather than omitting some themes and allusions to violent acts, I could also raise the ages of the characters and consider it YA. But then it defeats the original purpose, which was to create an edgy and real MG book. But how real is too real?

- Eve

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

There Ought to be a Law -- Robin

Our local assemblyman has started up a contest called “There Ought to be a Law,” where you can suggest a random new law and he’ll go to Sacramento and actually try to get it passed! I’m thinking about suggesting a few ideas. For example, I’d really like my assemblyman to pass a law that forces The Daily Show (after the writers’ strike is over, of course) to be aired one hour earlier. I’d really like that.

So once I was done thinking about my brilliant idea for a new law, I got to thinking some more…maybe we should make some new laws in the world of children’s literature. Come on everyone, play along with me!

There Ought to be a Law in Children’s Literature…
  1. Every children’s book author shall be paid a handsome advance. And by handsome, I mean James Franco! (Just pay me in Francos, baby!)

  2. Every children’s book author shall be named Honorary Ice Princess in their hometown Christmas parade. (I’ve always wanted to do that, and this may be the only way it’ll ever happen!)

  3. Every children’s book ever written shall include at least one vampire. (Oops, I think that’s already a law.)

Oh, oh! And I think we should also have a new law in DiscoLand:

No DM shall namedrop (no matter how cute the namedropped person is) unless another DM is allowed to also namedrop (as well as excessively exaggerate with poorly used Photoshop skills).

Why yes, that is Kirsten Dunst from all three Spider-Man movies (she just suddenly showed up in our hotel room at the SCBWI conference last summer). And yes, she is much paler than me. And no, I’m not good at Photoshop.

-Robin

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Random Post -- Jay

The lucky winners of our Two-Day Q&A contest are:


Laura
at
Creative Dreams

&

Linda D. (sbk)
at
Jumbled Ramblings


My intent was to have my wife randomly choose numbers to decide the winners, but I got home too late and she was asleep. So I found this handy-dandy site, which allowed me to still select the winners with complete randomness.

Why did I get home so late? Because I was 3-hours north doing school visits (courtesy of Kepler's Books) at Woodside High School, Gunn High School, and Palo Alto High School. And to end this post on a completely random note, here's a photo taken at the end of my last school visit:


Why yes, that is James Franco from all three Spider-Man movies! And yes, I did give him a signed copy of Thirteen Reasons Why! (And yes, he is so much cooler than me...)

- Jay

Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Voice of Clay Jensen: Joel Johnstone

[Below is an interview Jay conducted with Joel Johnstone, the voice of Clay Jensen on the Listening Library audiobook of Thirteen Reasons Why. And remember to leave a comment for your chance to win a free copy!]


Tell us a little about yourself.
I was born and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, about a mile and a half from Jeffery Dahmer. It was a very happy place! Seriously though, I am proud to be a midwesterner; I believe it has helped give me a sort of general objectivity as I split time now living between the coasts. After high school, I moved from Milwaukee to New York to attend Fordham University. I went to the Lincoln Center campus, which was a bit of a culture shock, initially. I studied acting there, and also went abroad for six months to study at a classical conservatory in London and Oxford. After graduating I began doing a lot of off-Broadway theatre, as well as TV and film work. Outside of my career, I am an enormous fan of baseball, playing and watching. I'm on a softball team with some acting buddies right now, and let's just say our team is not doing well. Please pray for us.

What attracted you to acting?
I grew up with a problematic obsession for baseball. I went to sleep wearing my Brewers hat and Dale Murphy baseball glove until I was eleven or so. In middle school I tried out for a community theatre production of The Music Man, and was cast as Winthrop, the Ron Howard part. I had one of the best times of my life, and so I began splitting my time between baseball, in the summer, and theatre, during the ten months of winter in Wisconsin. In high school my dreams of playing second base for the Brewers quickly vanished as I was benched for the majority of my sophomore year. However, it wasn't as big a blow to me as I expected. I had been performing in my high school plays as well, and I realized I was getting a lot more attention from girls by doing theatre than playing baseball. I would love to tell a story that some transcendent, out-of-body experience is what initially attracted me to acting, but truthfully it began as just a great way to meet girls. I got a lot more serious about it throughout high school. My acting teacher was incredibly encouraging and told me this was something he thought I could turn into a career. He helped me get into a summer program at the Steppenwolf Theare in Chicago the summer before my senior year. From then on, I knew this was what I was going to do.

What have been some of your favorite acting jobs?
My very first job on film, I got to play an American serial killer for a television show in London. It was sort of the British version of Tales From The Crypt. That was a wonderful introduction to film work. In one episode I killed five people using a nail gun, a samurai sword, an axe and a shiv. Ironically, I was in London studying Shakespeare at the time. Another favorite part of mine is Wesley from Sam Shepard's Curse of The Starving Class. That play is very haunting to me. If I could play that part every night for a year I would be ecstatic. Shepard is absolutely one of my favorite playwrights, and actors.

How did you get started voicing audiobooks?
I got started voicing audiobooks after I had been doing radio and television voiceovers for a year or so. The first audition I had was a twelve page, single spaced read, and I remember thinking, "There's no way I'll ever get this." There were so many different voices I had to create; I couldn't have been more intimidated. I got a call a month later saying the book company wanted to hire me. I was stunned and terrified at the same time. The 12-page audition was a challenge for me, and the manuscript they gave me two days ahead of time was 300+ pages. Somehow, I got through it. Since then, they've gotten much easier and a lot more fun.

Is there anything special you do between when you get the script and when you sit in front of the microphone?
The biggest thing I stress when I prepare is getting all the characters down. I read the whole book, and every time a new character is introduced I write it down on a piece of paper. Sometimes when I'm finished I'll have a list of up to 50 names. I then go through and try out different voices for each character. I can't have any repeats or anything too similar, so I make notes next to each name. A lot of roles demand a dialect, so I use a website that archives audio samples of people from just about every country speaking English in their native dialect. That has been a life saver. I also highlight every piece of dialogue in the book ahead of time. This gives me warning, as I'm reading the narrative in my own voice, that a character is coming up and I have to make an adjustment in pitch, accent, etc.

What did you enjoy most about recording Thirteen Reasons Why?
From an actor's point of view, it is a thousand times more enjoyable to narrate a book in the first person, like this one. It is much more conducive to giving a performance, rather than trying to force one. The book is rich with information about Clay, which allows me to delve deeper into the read and have more fun with it.
Aside from the performance aspect, I'm fascinated by books and films revolving around high school years. In my own life, whether I like it or not, high school was a very important part of my life. Not even including the academics portion, it was an extremely informative and character building time of my life. Your book reminded me about that, which I tend to forget time to time. I've also noticed most people I meet in my adult life seem to remind me of different versions of people I went to high school with. Many of the voices I used for different characters in the book were impressions of my old classmates.

Was there anything that made recording Thirteen Reasons Why more difficult than other audiobooks?
In many ways, this was the most demanding book I've narrated. In every other job I've had, I was the only reader and had the responsibility of creating each character in the book. In Thirteen Reasons Why I hadn't yet heard Debra read Hannah. I knew what Hannah said on the page, but I didn't know the inflections or emotion behind what Debra said, which is partially what I'm responding to. The best analogy is that it was similar to acting in front of a green screen. My main job as the reader is to tell the story through characters, breath, emotion, etc. And sharing that responsibility with Debra without her in the studio was an even bigger obstacle. I had to tell the story through Clay's narration, while reading Hannah's part quietly in my head, in order to keep it consistent. I truly have to thank Scott (the producer) for guiding me through the process. There is no way I could have done this without his direction.

Friday, November 23, 2007

The Voice of Hannah Baker: Debra Wiseman

[Below is an interview Jay conducted with Debra Wiseman, the voice of Hannah Baker on the Listening Library audiobook of Thirteen Reasons Why. And remember to leave a comment for your chance to win a free copy!]


Tell us a little about yourself.
I grew up in the great area of Palo Alto, California. I was always interested in the performing arts and Silicon Valley was rich with theatrical options. I did as many shows as I could and gained a lot of valuable experience. I visited New York City at the age of 11 and saw Les Miserables on Broadway. From that moment on I knew what I wanted to do and where I wanted to be. The Big Apple!

What attracted you to acting?
Acting was just a natural extension of my first love...singing. Just listening to good vocals isn't enough, there has to be emotion behind it and that's where acting comes in. I prefer comedy to drama, but I do both. My grandfather was an opera singer and cantor in Europe and that is from whom I got my voice.

What have been some of your favorite acting jobs?
I got my very first job in New York from an obscure ad in Backstage (a trade magazine) and after auditioning, I got a call that I had gotten the job. There was a catch: Would I cut my hair? Yikes! I was just out of school and had printed up 500 brand new resume pictures. Not to mention, my hair was long, curly,and extremely important to my persona. So I said, "No, I couldn't cut it," and the man said he would call me back to tell me if I got the job or not. I then asked about the project. He said it was Woody Allen's fall project (soon to be titled Bullets over Broadway). I said I would pay him and be bald to do the film! It was a fantastic experience in every way and I didn't have to cut my hair!

How did you get started voicing audiobooks?
Luck! I had my first audition for one and felt very at home in the medium. I booked that job and that led to others and ultimately...this job! I would like to work more in this medium. I really enjoy the challenge.

Is there anything special you do between when you get the script and when you sit in front of the microphone?
I read the script and make a list of all the characters and their personality traits. I then think of voices for each. Some voices are more of a stretch, but if the character is minor then I can sustain it. I usually keep the main character's voice close to my own sound since that is the voice for most of the book. In this book, my normal sound was too perky and light for such a troubled character, but we tried a few variations until we got one that sounded and felt like this young girl.

What did you enjoy most about recording Thirteen Reasons Why?
I really enjoy the challenge of choosing character voices that fit the style of the book and help relay the story effectively. This was a profound book and I felt that is was very important for the listeners to feel this character's honesty, so they could really experience what the character was going through.

Was there anything that made recording Thirteen Reasons Why more difficult than other audiobooks?
This book is not a flimsy or silly read. It is a serious novel depicting deep issues that can arise in high school. I knew going in that we had to keep the serious tone of the book, but also be real as to the whims and humor that goes with being a teenager. Well, by the end of the book I was completely invested in the character (just like when you read a good book). There was an emotional scene and I started crying, which was just a reaction to speaking her words as honestly as possible. If I was just reading the novel silently at home, I probably would've cried for the character as well. It means it's a good book, it pulls you in!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

A Two-Day Q&A -- Jay

I’ve had Listening Library’s audiobook version of Thirteen Reasons Why in my possession for several weeks. But it wasn’t until a few days ago that I finally slid the first C.D. into my car stereo. Basically, I was terrified of hearing someone else (in this case, two someone elses) interpret my words. And fifteen minutes after pressing play, I couldn’t take it anymore and I pressed eject.

I couldn’t take it anymore because I was freaking out! I worked on that story for several years…I knew it inside and out. Yet I was so caught up in its retelling that my muscles were tense and my mouth was hanging open as I waited to find out what was going to happen next. How is that even possible!?!?

It's possible because of the actors. According to AudioFile Magazine:

The novel makes a perfect transformation to audio. Debra Wiseman narrates Hannah’s story with a blend of dispassion, disgust, and defeat. Joel Johnstone portrays the grieving Clay, who chimes in uncertainly from time to time to protest Hannah’s words, his comments marked with desperation. The interplay of the two is perfectly choreographed in this powerful audio.

I contacted Debra and Joel to learn more about the actors who literally gave voices to the voices in my head. And over the next two days, I’d like to introduce them to you.

Also, be sure to leave comments. On Monday, I'll randomly select one commenter from each Q&A to receive a free audiobook of Thirteen Reasons Why.

- Jay


PAST POSTS: To re-read about my trip to NYC to witness the recording of Thirteen Reasons Why, click here. And if you don't already know about the audiobook's bonus track, click here.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Is It Just Me? -- Eve

Lately I’ve had my fill of YA books dealing with high school bullies. And although I’ve enjoyed every one of these books, the whole “bully” thing is becoming a little played for me. Don’t get me wrong, my MG novel that I just finished features heroism, death, gang life, and what else? A bully, of course! We Americans loves us some bullies.

But, and here’s the big “BUT”… I honestly don’t remember any bullies in my high school. Is it just me? Am I delusional? I mean, we had our partiers, our stoners, our rah-rah’s, our band geeks, our drama-ramas, our sports stars, our Dungeons and Dragons nerds, our wannabe rock stars and rap stars and models, and a few real gang bangers. And I pretty much had a few friends in each group, so I sort of floated around. (Okay, mostly I was Reese Witherspoon in Election…Type A, peppy rah-rah, student government nerd, took everything too seriously, studied waaayyy too much, never partied, etc, etc. But, I digress.)

My point is, by the time high school rolled around, we were kind of over the whole “too cool” phase of adolescence. Nobody was shoving kids into lockers or trash-canning dorks or giving swirlies in the boys’ bathroom. Don’t get me wrong, we weren’t angels…we just got all that stuff out of our systems in Junior High. Our HS was 10th-12th grade, so maybe not having Freshmen around to bully was part of it. But, I remember people in my HS being pretty tolerant of each other. Even back in the day, pre-Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, pre-coming out coolness of Lance Bass, Ellen, and Portia deRossi, kids came out of the closet at my HS and nobody blinked. Even the conservative kids just kind of shrugged and went on about their business.

The only true bullying I endured as a kid was in 4th through 7th grades. One day in the 4th grade, I was punched in the stomach and kicked into the street by a group of kids. The leader, who shall remain nameless, (because you know who you are, Woodrow) kicked my ass because he heard some kids made fun of his name, and he thought I was among them, when actually it was another girl (you know who you are, Kecia) who had blond hair and he got us mixed up. And in 7th grade Jackie B. tried to beat me up after school for sticking up for my friend, Kirsten, who J had called a “slut.” She chickened out when she remembered who my sister was…not a bully, but she was tough, and you wouldn’t want to meet her in a dark alley after you messed with her little sister! But, beyond about age 14, kids in my neighborhood seemed to focus on sports or academics or drugs or whatever their interests were. And bullying wasn’t really cool anymore. It was just sort of juvenile.

Is anyone else with me? Do kids outgrow the bullying phase by high school? Or is the bullying just more covert, more psychological and cunning rather than physical, so we don’t notice it as much? Or maybe I was just clueless!

- Eve

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Committed -- Robin

Recently, Eve and I saw the movie Across the Universe (at Jay’s constant urging) and I must say…I was blown away. It’s a movie set to Beatles songs, which makes it part musical, part regular movie, part one-very-long-tripped-out music video. I came away thinking not so much about the acting or the singing (though they were wonderful) but more about the person who came up with this strangely wonderful idea for a movie. I love that she stuck to her vision and made a truly unique piece of art. I think it was because the movie stayed committed to the concept and never held back that I felt so inspired when I left the theater. Bravo!

For me, being committed to an idea is what makes unusual ones work so well. For example, let’s talk about Stephen Colbert. When he was on The Daily Show, I loved him. He totally cracked me up. So when I heard he was going to start his own show, I thought, "Oh, no way. He could never follow The Daily Show!" And when I found out he was going to do the show as a persona, a character directly opposite of himself, I thought, "Oh, no way. He seriously can’t follow The Daily Show!" But dang, if he didn’t pull it off. He commits to his idea and never wavers from it. Sometimes he commits to his idea so much that it’s over the top, but that makes me love him even more.

Speaking of loving Stephen Colbert, I must admit that Eve and I have had the “Who would you date…Stephen Colbert or Jon Stewart?” conversation (but who hasn’t!?) and we both came up with the same answer. But our reasoning got very technical, so join us for drinks someday and we’ll tell you! (Jay was very quiet in the back seat of the car during that conversation.)

Anyways, I also love it when I come across books that take an unusual idea and stay committed to it. For me, that book is Be More Chill by Ned Vizzini. I mean, it’s one thing for an author to think, “Hmm…I think I’ll write a book about how to turn a nerd into a popular guy.” But it’s absolutely brilliant to then create a realistic sci-fi book about a kid who swallows a computer chip and walks through his life with the voice of Keanu Reeves in his head telling him what to do and say in order to be cool. What an amazing idea. And Ned Vizzini stuck with it, never held back, and created a killer book.

So those are the people who have inspired me to stay committed to my ideas and not hold back. But wait! There’s one more inspiration…

Every single skit with Chris Farley on SNL. That dude can commit! (Sniff.)

Who else do you feel is “committed”?

- Robin

Thursday, November 15, 2007

In Da Club -- Jay

This past Tuesday, I spoke on a YA panel at Books Inc. in San Francisco. It was for their Not Your Mother's Book Club year-end party. And I must say, if every community had a group like that, literacy rates would be sky-high (and I'd be rich...rich I tell you!!!).

My wife drove up with me and got the chance to see her honey in action for the very first time. At one point, she claims, she even had to hold back tears of pride. At another point, she couldn't help inserting herself into a conversation two girls were having about my book by saying, "Guess what! That's my husband!"

Good times and good pizza were had by all...


Jennifer of NYMBC introducing us.
(Notice CynJay squatting on the right?
Thanks for coming out!)


Brian Mandabach, me, Barry Lyga, Ellen Hopkins,
and members of the book club
You Say Read We Say Party!


They actually seem interested
in what I'm saying.


"No, but I hope someday I'll be big enough
to get writer's cramp from excessive autographing."


- Jay


CHECK THIS OUT: Ever hear the phrase "boys don't read"? Well, let's put that ridiculous cliche away! Check out Boys Blogging Books (which includes an interview with yours truly). I'm definitely gonna check these guys out on a regular basis...and so should you.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

"They're Not Dumb, They're Just Young" -- Eve

When Reka Simonsen, Senior Editor at Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, said the title of this post at the recent SCBWI Writers’ Day, Robin and I scribbled down her words immediately. It’s my new favorite quote for children’s writers. For years, Robin, Jay and I have discussed this topic at length. Kids are often way more sophisticated than grow-ups believe them to be. So, when I pick up a book that “dumbs down” the kid-speak or kid-think, it’s like nails on a chalkboard to me. Thanks for nailing down our thoughts, Reka!

Other favorite quotes on writing for children that I toss out regularly:

“Show, don’t tell.”

“The story’s DNA is in the first sentence.”

“Write what you want to know, rather than only what you know.”

“Chase your MC up a tree, then throw rocks at him.”

“Kill your babies.”

“Boil your story down to one brief 'elevator pitch' sentence.”

“Sentimentality is a failure of feeling.”

“Character trumps plot.” - Jack Gantos

“Teens crave honesty.” - Laurie Halse Anderson

“Lift the carpet on your character to reveal the icky but true issues.” - Libba Bray

“I don’t like hostile narrators; however, there’s a difference between being harsh to the world and being harsh to the reader.” - Julie Strauss-Gabel

“Careful what you wish for.” - Robert Sabuda

“The road to publication is like a churro, long and bumpy but sweet!” - The Disco Mermaids

“Attack your next book with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind!” - Dr. Stephen Holtzman

If you are an author of any of the first 7 quotes, please accept my apologies for failing to write down whose mouths they came out of! And, if you’d like, please identify yourselves here in the comments section.

Any other great writing quotes to add to my list? Thanks!

- Eve (favorite quote of all time: “If it’s not fun, why do it?” - Ben and Jerry)

Monday, November 12, 2007

Office Space -- Robin

If you read this previous post, you’ll remember that I recently remodeled our messy toy room/dog room/sun room/box-collecting room into a nice little office for myself. Some of you wondered if I’d be able to keep it looking so nice and clean.

Here’s an office update:

1. Heck, no. It’s a total mess! I’ve done a good job of keeping the actual desk space clear of clutter, but the floor is a magnet for all things that don’t fit in a drawer or in my car trunk.

2. The Spider-Man pinball machine has been helpful when my son runs into the room wanting my attention. I tell him to play one game and then Mommy will be all ears. (Note: this turns into 3 games, played at full volume.)

3. When my son finally finishes his games, he’s forgotten why he came in there in the first place. Then I play a couple of games, of course.

4. I’m able to close the door to the office when I need complete silence.

5. Sometimes when I’m about to close the door so I can get complete silence, my husband asks me what he and our son should do with their time while I’m shut off in my office, and I absent-mindedly tell him, “Just build something!” Well…then the following usually happens:

Our living room is transformed into…

CREATURE LAND




Apparently, they’re still looking for a new sheriff in Creature Land, due to the high number of “bad guys.”

- Robin



MERMAID SIGHTING: If you’re gonna be near San Francisco on Tuesday, November 13th, swing by Not Your Mother’s Book Club at Books Inc. Opera Plaza and have Jay sign your copy of Thirteen Reasons Why (he’ll be there with fellow teen-lit. authors Ellen Hopkins, Barry Lyga, and Brian Mandabach).

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Johnny, Be Good -- Jay

Johnny Tremain.

No, stay…stay. Hear me out. Trust me, that name fills my veins with ice, too. I don’t know if I was forced to read that 1943 Newbery winner in 5th or 6th grade, but it scared me away from any other Newbery medalist till I was in college.

But I’m gonna give it another chance.

I plucked that book from the library shelf earlier this week, fully intending to delve into it that night. But four nights have since gone by and I’m still too nervous to turn past the first page and really commit myself.

On rocky islands gulls woke. Time to be about their business. Silently they floated in on the town, but when their icy eyes sighted the first dead fish, first bits of garbage about the ships and wharves, they began to scream and quarrel.

The cocks in Boston…
Sorry for splicing the introduction right there, but that’s the only way I’d be able to intrigue you into picking up your own copy and joining me on this venture. Misery loves company, you know.

Why have I decided to put myself through this? I don’t know. But I plan to use this experience to study what’s changed in the publishing world since shortly after World War II. Could a book like this ever get published today? At the Writers’ Day we recently attended, there were two separate presentations with editors reading and critiquing anonymous first pages. I can’t imagine where they would’ve started with Mr. Tremain, because we writers are constantly being told to hook readers (and editors) immediately. We need to make them turn that first page. Well, good ol’ Johnny isn’t even mentioned on page one, and neither is any sense of conflict. Basically, Boston is full of sleepy women waking up even sleepier children. Woo-hoo! Let’s get this party started!

Honestly, I’m hoping to fall in love with Johnny T. this time. And I’ll admit, when I first had to read about him, I was reading books like The Secret Life of the Underwear Champ and The Mad Scientist’s Club for pleasure. So a 256-page historical fiction novel, heavy-heavy-oh-so-very-heavy on description and adverbs, and labeled A Novel for Old & Young on its title page, had no chance of pleasing me.

So…here I go. I’m now approaching the end of page one.

And so, in a crooked little house at the head of Hancock’s Wharf on crowded Fish Street, Mrs. Lapham stood at the foot of a ladder leading to the attic where her father-in-law’s apprentices…
I know! The page almost turns itself, doesn’t it?

- Jay

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The Mermaids Go Solo -- Robin

Poor Jay had to go to The Goonies fest the other night without his Mermaids. Eve and I were both busy and couldn’t/wouldn’t go watch him recite every line from his all-time favorite movie. Not that I wouldn’t do the same thing if they were playing The Jerk. Or Raising Arizona. Or The Breakfast Club. Or Heathers. (Anyone with me!? “He hates these cans! Stay away from the cans!”) Sorry. Got a little carried away.

Nope—Eve and I were very busy. I’ll tell you what I was doing, but I won’t say what Eve was doing because I wouldn’t want to embarrass her by telling you she went to a Billy Joel musical all by herself. I’m just too good of a friend to do that. (You’re welcome, honey!)

Tuesday night, I was on the phone. It was a tele-seminar put on by the fabulous Bruce Hale about how to write and sell a series. He’s one of the best speakers around and I learned sooo much! As always, he started off his speech with a joke which involved a parrot and a dog and Jesus…I think. I can’t remember the punchline, but I do remember it was funny!

Bruce was interviewed by Roxyanne Young (of Smartwriters.com) and he took questions from the “audience” at the end. It was so surreal because people would announce their name and where they were from…and they were from all over the country! Vermont…North Carolina…Pennsylvania…California (that was me!). It was very cool to have a phone conversation with people from so many different places who were all interested in writing for children. Many, many thanks to Bruce for sharing his wisdom and humor.

And speaking of jokes, I only know one…but I’m not going to tell you the punchline. Let’s see who can get this one first:

What does a dyslexic, agnostic, insomniac do?

Good luck!

- Robin

Monday, November 05, 2007

Treasure Huntin' -- Jay

How many of you have ever been in a bookstore? Okay, hands down. How many of you have ever been in a bookstore and had a giddy person walk up to you, jumping up and down, pointing at the book in you hands, saying, “I wrote that. I did. I really did! Look, that’s my picture”?

Hmm… I’m not seeing many hands. But maybe you can still help.

What if that did happen to you? How would you react? Would you even want to be approached? Well, what if the author was able to contain himself and not jump around?

The past two days, at different bookstores, I’ve seen people walking around with my book. At both stores, when I first arrived, I immediately checked the teen section to see if they had copies of Thirteen Reasons Why. Then I went on my merry way, looking for a book that I didn’t write. At both stores, from several aisles away, my eyes somehow drifted back to the teen section…and I noticed that the number of copies had decreased by one!

So I went into full treasure huntin’ mode, stalking the aisles with shifty eyes, looking for someone carrying my book. It felt weird…and very cool…to know that my book was somewhere within that magical area between the bookshelf and the cash register. At the second bookstore, Robin was with me, and she caught the treasure huntin’ fever, as well. And both times, I successfully tracked down the elusive customer. But both times, I chickened out before approaching.

What would I have said had I approached? Primarily, I wanted to do a little market study. Why did they originally pick up my book? Was it the title? The cover? Was it recommended by a friend? Why did they decide to hold onto it rather than put it back on the shelf? Was it the premise? Had they actually read a few pages? But even more primarily, I just wanted to say, “I wrote that. Look, that’s my picture.”

Personally, I’d want the author to approach me. But is that just me? Would it be too weird? If not, then what’s a good icebreaker? Help!

- Jay


MORE TREASURE HUNTIN’

At 7:30pm on November 6th, my head will probably explode. Why? Because I’ll be watching The Goonies, one of the greatest movies ever made, on a big screen for a one-night-only event. (For those of you who’ve read Thirteen Reasons Why, the Crestmont Theater was inspired by the theater pictured below.)

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Happy NaNoWriMo to You! -- Eve

November is National Novel Writing Month, and I’m all signed up for NaNoWriMo! Okay, so I’m a few days late. Have any of you ever known me to be on time for anything?? Go to www.NaNoWriMo.org for more info, but basically it’s a nationwide project where we crazies pledge to write an entire novel in exactly one month!

My good friend, Tina Nichols Coury, once told me that John Lennon (yes, that John Lennon!) said he wrote his very best songs in the back of the car on the way to the studio. I believe he personally said this to Tina’s husband several times back in the day, when they hung out together. Long story! Anyway, though I’ve never been a “work better under pressure” kind of person, I think of John Lennon’s words often. And, these days, I’m finding that I actually do some of my best work with a self- or agent-imposed deadline. Who knew?

After the recent release of two YA novels (that shall remain nameless) that share the exact same premise as my YA love story work-in-progress that I’ve been obsessed with for the past year, I had exactly two days to re-think, re-synopsize and re-write my story, so that it would not appear to be a knock-off of either of these critically acclaimed YA masterpieces (even though I had the idea way before coming across either of these). Whew! What a fun 48 hours! The reason for the deadline is that I’m attending the Big Sur Children’s Writing Workshop at the end of November, and had to FedEx part of the ms for editorial critique by, um, yesterday. And the reason I started the process so late is because I didn’t finish revising my MG novel for my agent until Wednesday. So, I re-started my YA book at midnight Thursday. NaNoWriMo to the rescue!

Even though I was heartbroken to abandon my genius hook and plot, I found that working under the gun actually worked to my advantage. Lack of sleeping, eating, and bathing does wonders for my creative side. I watched a Charles Schulz biography on TV recently that described his battle with depression. He used to withdraw from society for long stretches of time, hole up in his office with only paper and ink, and, ironically, create his very best work. I’m not suggesting that anybody submit to depression on purpose to enhance his or her creative work, but I’m finding that sometimes I do my best work when I’m somewhat withdrawn and “in my own head” for a while. Which translates into refusing to take calls, emails, or visitors for awhile. Sorry, Jay and Robin!

But, I digress. The idea of NaNoWriMo freaked me out at first. I thought How? Why? But when I realized that I had no choice but to write a whole new novel in one month (the Big Sur Workshop starts on November 30th, and I need to have a crappy first draft complete by then), I said, “Bring it!” And then I said, “It’s already been brough’in!” And then I said, “Si, se puede!” *

Happy NaNoWriMo! Please let me know if you are one of the “crazies” who signed up, too!

- Eve


* Please forgive the inside-jokes aimed at Robin :)

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Busting the Box -- Robin

When it comes to writing, I’ve come to the realization that I’m one of those people who does not fit in. True, I am very tall and typically don’t “fit” into most things (I can’t actually shop at The Gap, I have to go to Gap online). But now it seems my books are shaping up to be just...like...me!

My middle grade book, Dude, Where’s My Locker?, is about a boy getting through Day One of middle school. It includes drawings and graphs and letters and quizzes and just general weirdness. By the end of the day, he defeats the bully, gets the girl, and finds his locker. I’ve been getting amazing responses, including one publishing house that said they passed the book around the office because they thought it was so hilarious. Their problem was that they couldn’t figure out how to market it. I think this book is a case of needing to find a publishing house that loves a book that doesn’t quite fit the mold (which sounds like the plotline of virtually every Disney movie ever made -- a story about a kid who doesn’t quite fit in…or a lion, or a clownfish, or a cowboy doll, or a mermaid). And those movies seem to do just fine!

I took a break from writing Dude a few years ago, and decided to write something completely different. Something that might actually sell, I thought. What came out was a chapter book called The Nitwits about a couple of bumbling boys who solve local mysteries that always end up being spoofs. And how did that turn out!? Totally and completely outside of the box. Nitwits is part novel, part graphic novel, part screenplay, part, um…something. But it was fun to write and it involves lots of scenes where someone falls down. And I find falling down very funny. I love slapstick comedy. (Give me a Jim Carey/Three Stooges/Naked Gun movie marathon and I’m in heaven!) And again, I’m getting a great response to Nitwits, but no one’s willing to publish a little book that refuses to get in the box. (I like to think of this book as more of a happy chicken on a cage-free ranch.)

I’ve considered adjusting my writing style…believe me, have I ever considered it! But in the immortal words of Popeye (another great dude who never quite fit in), I yam what I yam!

- Robin

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

All the World's a What? -- Jay

It’s not the topic of the speech that matters. It’s not the length of the speech. It’s not even the size of the audience. But for some reason, I become an absolute nervous, anxious, and nauseous wreck the closer I get to stepping on a stage or in front of a class. And I’m totally baffled as to why that is...because I love speaking!

Here’s the scenario from last weekend:

EVENT: SCBWI Southern California Writers’ Day
ATTENDANCE: 200+
LENGTH OF SPEECH: 10 measly minutes
TOPIC OF SPEECH: How to Sell a Book in Twelve Years or Less

When Robin arrived at my house on Friday night, I was in my writing room, gathering all my stuff. We had an hour to waste till Eve picked us up to carpool two hours south, and my moodiness was driving Robin bonkers. She grabbed some reading material from my awesome collection of autographed books and headed downstairs until Eve arrived. She couldn’t even stand being in the same room as me!

When we finally got to the hotel, my head hit the pillow at 11:30pm, but the last time I checked the clock before falling asleep, it was 1:30am. Then I woke up at 7, ate breakfast, and went to the conference site. I was the last solo speaker and spent almost the entire day running through the speech in my head. The only time I wasn’t thinking about my speech or gazing at the fire alarm near the emergency exit was when the audience broke into laughter or applause for one of the other speakers.

But then my name was called to the stage and all my worries rolled away like water off a duck coated in Scotchgard. And for those ten minutes, I was in absolute bliss. I wasn’t thinking about my speech…I was giving my speech. I wasn’t thinking about any issues in my day-to-day life…I was giving my speech. I heard laughter. I saw tears. I heard more laughter, and then applause. My speech was over. I left the stage. I felt like a rock star, baby, and I couldn’t wait to do it again!

And yet, I know I’m going to be an absolute mess before that next speech, which sucks…but, oh well. Absolute bliss is worth it, even for ten measly minutes.

- Jay


POST-POST: A couple people asked, in regards to our last post, how I tied the Billie Jean dance into a speech about my journey as a writer. And I’ll admit, I had to tie a fairly funky knot to do it. I spoke about reaching my dreams of selling a book and speaking at Writers’ Day. I told about my wife’s dream coming true by having a song on the audiobook. And then I told them that, back in the 80’s, I wanted to dance like Michael Jackson. So I used that stage as my chance to make another one of my dreams come true. (Of course, I really just needed a good ending to my speech.)

Monday, October 29, 2007

Dancing with the Authors

At this past weekend's Writers' Day in Thousand Oaks, over 200 authors gathered to be inspired, gather tips, win awards, and schmooze. Editors from Henry Holt, Viking, and Boyds Mills Press gave us a glimpse into life on the other side of the slush pile. Susan Patron told us what to expect when we win a Newbery. Heather Tomlinson, Rene Colato Lainez, Barbara Jean Hicks, and Denise Gruska gave inspiring presentations on their unique journeys to The Published Side...and so did Disco Mermaid Jay.

Of course, Jay wasn't about to let his dream of speaking at Writers' Day stand alone. Oh no, he had to make another one of his dreams come true at the same time. At the end of his speech, with Michael Jackson's Billie Jean pumping out over the audience, he proved once and for all that...well...no one can dance quite like Michael Jackson. (Trust us, if you weren't there, there's no way to explain how the dancing tied into his speech.)


Billie Jean...


...is not my lover, either.


Jay autographing the cheek of Barbara Jean Hicks


Robin with up-and-coming
(and multi-award-winning) Emily Jiang


Jay with future speakers
Eve and Robin

Thursday, October 25, 2007

We're Outta Here -- Robin

The DMs are off on another road trip! This time, it’s to the SoCal SCBWI Writers’ Day in Thousand Oaks. We’ll get to hear Susan Patron speak, and maybe she’ll mention this.

We’re also going to hear…oh, who was that again? Oh! Our own Jay Asher! Love that guy. His presentation is titled How to Get Published in Twelve Years or Less. And he has a little sumpin’ special planned for his speech. I can’t wait! Hopefully we’ll have pictures to share with you, that is, if I can hold the camera still while I’m crying tears of pride.

On Saturday night we plan to head out to a great sushi restaurant, so if you’re going to be there, come join us! (Watching Jay shudder as he sips sake is an event not to be missed.)

Then on Sunday, Eve and I are going to chauffeur Jay around to a few different bookstores to sign copies of Thirteen Reasons Why. And by chauffeur I mean, “make Jay drive while Evie and Robin eat food and nap.”

Somebody’s gotta do it…

- Robin

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

I Love L.A. (More & More) -- Jay

Last weekend, I headed to L.A. for the Southern California Independent Booksellers Association trade show. First, I schmoozed on the trade show floor, where the amazing Penguin rep (Hello, Nicole!) was hyping Thirteen Reasons Why like she’d actually read it and enjoyed it. Her pitch was so good, it made me want to order some copies for my own bookstore…and I don’t even own a bookstore!

Then it was time for dinner. They fed the authors first so we could chat with the booksellers at their dinner later on without worrying about anything green clinging to our teeth. Now, I don’t know how to express how cool the evening was without sounding like Mr. Namedropper, so I’m just going to show you a photo taken at our dinner table, and you can just imagine how many times my head almost exploded from being surrounded by so much coolness.

Neal Shusterman, Lisa Yee, me,
Brian Selznick, Pam Munoz Ryan, Cecil Castellucci
(putting names in a caption does not count as namedropping)

The next day, I went out to lunch with Lisa Yee and Julia DeVillers in Santa Monica. Of course, Lisa brought her li’l yellow marshmallow friend with her, who decided to act like Tarzan of the Peeps for this shot.


Then I spoke to three back-to-back English classes at Flintridge Prep; my first school visit since the book came out. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a nervous wreck while waiting to speak before anything more three-dimensional than a bathroom mirror. But honestly, and I’m not just saying this because I know some of the students are probably reading it, they set the bar pretty high for school visits. Smart. Fun. Respectful. And it’s so easy to get them to laugh! (Thanks for a wonderful visit, Ms. Cooper.)

After that, I headed to Flintridge Bookstore & Coffeeshop. They have a Teen Advisory Board there, which I had the chance to speak with and sign books for. Then they permitted me to stay and listen to the board meeting. The store lets them take home and review publisher catalogues and advance reading copies, thereby allowing teens to help stock the teen shelves. I know…brilliant! Chris Crutcher’s newest book, Deadline, was the only book mentioned by more than one person as a must-read. (Well, that and Thirteen Reasons Why…but the author of that book was sitting close to the cookies.)

- Jay

Monday, October 22, 2007

Bigger Isn't Always Better --Eve

I’ve been studying screenwriting obsessively for about six months now, ever since Jay gave me a few books to help with plotting and revisions. Thanks, Jay! And, let me tell you, it’s done wonders for my writing. Novels for children are very much like screenplays in that they must be whittled down to only that which is completely pertinent to character or story, and they’re all about action and dialogue. No room for detailed, verbose descriptions of beaches and sunsets, or our audience may quickly get bored and seek comfort with an X-Box.

Deep into another round of revisions on my middle grade book, I got the crazy idea that I should head to Las Vegas with Syd Field and Richard Walter and hole up in a hotel room with them until the re-write was complete. Not in the flesh and blood sense, only their screenwriting books accompanied me…what were YOU thinking?? This next part may seem random, but it’s entirely true. After sitting in my room for several days, adding scenes to make the story “bigger” I had the urge to leave my walk-in freezer of a room (Why are all Las Vegas buildings air conditioned to the point where frost forms on the windows?) and work by the pool.

Alternating between tapping on my computer keyboard and reading the screenwriting books, I got a ton done. In fact, I was so focused for an entire day that I was completely oblivious to the people around me. When I finally came up for air after several hours of hard work, I started noticing lots of skin. Not your average “What Happens in Vegas” scantily clad folks, but, you know, um, naked people. Apparently, I had camped out by the “Clothing Optional” swimming pool at the Wynn. Of course, as the afternoon wore on and the alcohol flowed, the clothing became a lot more “optional.”

Many of the women surrounding me had, you know, enhanced what nature gave them. Some of them were SO enhanced, on top of their petite waists and hips, that the skewed proportions made them look outrageous and awkward. Now, I have nothing against plastic surgery. But, for me, there’s a point at which things become too big and the overall effect goes beyond enhanced beauty, and borders on unsightly freak show.

So…and this where I bring it all back to my writing… I had an epiphany moment where I realized that BIGGER isn’t necessarily better. Bigger can actually muddy up a story and diminish its heart. Just look at Nicholas Sparks’ “The Notebook.” It’s a simple story, well told. And people love it. It’s happy and sad and gut wrenching and stays with you for a long long time. But there isn’t anything particularly “big” about it.

Once I stuck to my main character’s journey and took out the extraneous “big” stuff that made it feel too much like a Michael Bay movie with pointless car chases and explosions, my story really came together. So, I’m happy to announce that I’m DONE (again) and ready to send this puppy off to my agent. Let’s hope the rest of the world agrees that bigger isn’t always better.

-- Eve