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.)

(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.

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.”


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.


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!


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.


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 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!"