Thursday, December 31, 2009


I spent yesterday trying to manage some of the clutter in my house. I cleaned out my daughter's dress-up chest, built a closet for her American Girl Doll clothes, cleared my dresser of some outdated family photos, put books on shelves in my sons' room, took out all the recyclables from Christmas, and loaded the car with bags and boxes of 'stuff' for Goodwill.

If you were to walk into my house, however, you'd wonder if I'd done anything at all. I do not live a clutter-free life, and I don't want to. But I don't want to be weighed down by excess either.

We had friends years ago who invited us over for dinner one evening. They had lived in Pittsburgh longer than we had at that time, so I was surprised to walk into their house to find stark white walls with no paintings or pictures, bookshelves with only a few books, no knick-knacks of any sort, no throw blankets or pillows on their sofas, clear counters, clear tables, sparse furnishings, and only one small box of toys in their daughters' room. The wife, I learned, hated clutter of any sort, so her family lived as minimalists in the most extreme sense imaginable to me.

In contrast, a neighbor of ours at that time lived in a house that was a fire hazard. We'd visit her--a recent widow--and have to literally (and by that, I mean this is not an exaggeration) follow a maze from the front door to the sitting room, laid out by piles and piles of newspapers and magazines. Then we'd sit and talk with her, but I was so distracted by the array of old glasses and plates and lamps and candles that I can't even tell you what we ever talked about.

My father was also a collector, but his collections always made sense to me: antique guns, rare books, old farming tools, wooden kitchen utensils. They fit his personality and fit together in a cohesive way. As such, my parents' home never felt cluttered to me: it felt alive.

I've been working on revisions for my young adult novel and have been thinking a lot about clutter. I know I tend toward collecting lines and paragraphs and even scenes that aren't really necessary, like items from my neighbor's house: old news clippings that fascinated me, a candy dish I found in a junk shop, a small painting that looks pretty but is out of place. But if I keep them around, they're something for people to trip and stumble over as they're trying to get to the heart of the story--something to distract them from the point of the visit.

But if I get rid of too much, I run the risk of housing my story in stark white walls that won't feel warm and welcoming to the reader. The foundation will be there--the roof, the floors, the necessary furniture--but I'll leave nothing for the guests to lay across their laps in the evening, nothing intriguing for them to wonder about when conversation dies down, and nothing to make them want to return again and again.

What I want in my own book and in the books I read is the right collection of curios. I want the ones that help tell the story rather than detract from it. I want the ones that are as much a part of that story as my dad's 19th-century medical instruments were a part of his story.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Main character scholarships

My first year in college I wasn't a stellar student. I was there on a partial scholarship and in order to keep the scholarship, I had to maintain a 3.9 GPA. Ha! Nope. Didn't come close. Could I have come close if, say, I'd tried? Sure. But I was so caught up in being a freshman and mooning over my boyfriend back home and being jealous of my roommate and her eight dates per weekend and . . . okay, so those were my main reasons for being so pathetic freshman year. But they weren't reasons at all, really. They were excuses.

Sophomore year, I moved out of the dorms and into an apartment. And I got a job: Subway. I came home reeking of onions every day, my nails yellow from mustard, annoyed by my boss walking behind me with her stopwatch, confused by the guy with five fingers on each hand (no thumbs; so weird but probably worthy of a separate post), and worried that tomorrow would be the day I'd lose my own fingers in the meat slicer.

However, what I got out of the job (besides cheap sandwiches and the worst date of my life) was the realization that the busier I was, the more on top of things I felt. Because I had to schedule my classes, my homework, my social life, and my work hours, I fared much better that year than the previous one--not just academically but in all areas. If I only had two hours to study for my English exam, I studied those two hours because I knew I couldn't put it off until later. "Later" was already booked with a movie night with my best friend or an hour to clean the apartment or just some alone time.

But that's not the point.

I have been so crazy busy this last month or so that I fall into panic mode roughly four times a day. My clients have been ridiculously prolific lately, which means I always have projects waiting for my edits. I've been editing my own writing, as well as completely revising it and starting a new story. Or two. It's Christmas time, in case you hadn't noticed, so I've been shopping for my family, even wrapping a few gifts and getting them in the mail. I chose this year, for some unknown reason, to make my mother's present--top secret and still unfinished. I have cookies in the oven right now that I'm taking to church tonight for the youth to decorate. Piano lessons for two sons today. A Christmas concert tomorrow morning. A dentist appointment tomorrow afternoon. A child's classroom party on Friday. And my anniversary. See? Not even enough time for complete sentences. But life is good . . . really good.

When I was bored as a child, my mother always said, "Only boring people are bored."

And now I'd like to get to my point.

I've been making time for reading in spite of my busy schedule. I have a book in the car for when I'm waiting for a child to finish one activity or another. And I have one by my bed so I can read a chapter before falling asleep at night. Both of these books are YA bestsellers at the moment. The one in the car, however, is (in my opinion) boring. Why? Because the main character isn't doing enough. She's mooning over someone she's lost. She's wandering around aimlessly, waiting for her life to change--or waiting for someone to change it for her. She's watching other people live their lives. She's biding her time, and I'm thinking she's going to lose her scholarship before the semester ends.

The bedtime book, on the other hand, is keeping my interest--so much so, in fact, that it's a good thing it's upstairs or I'd be picking it up to read during the day when I know I don't have the time. The MC isn't waiting for something to happen; he's making it happen. He's going after what he wants. He's going to school. He's going after the girl. He's trying to figure out how to live his life. And he's believable and sympathetic for all of these reasons. Oh . . . and not the least bit boring.

If you're a writer, is your MC keeping his or her scholarship? And if you're not a writer, are you keeping your scholarship?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

"My" very own indie

Givens Books/Little Dickens

My father was never very good at working for other people. That's not to say he didn't have an incredible work ethic, because he did. He was simply rather . . . independent minded, to put it gently. While teaching high school in Tucson, Arizona, he and my mother opened a gift shop. Twice. Neither was a huge success.

Then we moved to Lynchburg, Virginia, where he taught high school again, opened a bookstore (Boonshire Books) with my mother, and then quit teaching after butting heads too many times with the administration. The story (though false) goes: He walked in to quit and the principal told him teachers were a dime a dozen, so my father gave him a dime and told him to go find them then. The real story is that he wanted to quit but they said they wouldn't let him out of his contract, so he stopped showing up for work until they fired him.

An independent-minded couple opening an independent bookstore... It made a lot of sense nearly 35 years ago. And from the beginning it was a labor of love. Yet as with all things we give birth to, it was difficult and involved a lot of sacrifice and a lot of sweat and a lot more hard work than anyone had imagined.

After several years in one location, my parents decided to expand, and they built a new building in a more central location. Because they couldn't afford a new home and a new store, they combined the two. We lived in the lower level, and the business occupied the main level. I literally grew up in a bookstore, and I'm sure there's no better place.

My father retired more than 10 years ago, and my mother kept working. She loved being there too much and still does. My brother, Danny, bought the business from them and combined it under one new, 16,000-square-feet roof with his toy and educational supply store. He rents space to a coffee and sandwich shop as well, making the store an ideal place to spend the day. It has a used book department that is run by an appropriately curmudgeonly man. No used book department is complete without one of those.

We're well aware in our family that without its loyal customers, the store would not have stayed in business for as long as it has. New customers come in every day, and they run the gamut--from the old ladies who knew us when we were children to the children we grew up with, now parents themselves, to a new generation of kids "growing up" in a bookstore.

This holiday season, while you're finishing up that shopping list (or just starting it), be sure you're wrapping at least a couple books to put under someone's tree. As a child raised on words as much as on food and water, I will be forever grateful for every author who has fed my mind over the years.

Looking for ideas for the young reader in your life? Try one of these Givens Books bestsellers (and a couple of my personal favorites):

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
The Last Olympian by Rick Riordan
Bob Books (beginning readers) by Bobby Lynn Maslen
Jan Brett's Christmas Treasury by Jan Brett
The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo
"Stand Back," said the Elephant, "I'm Going to Sneeze" by Patricia Thomas

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Some girls are

I've been so (gratefully) busy with editing work the last several weeks that I haven't had time to read anything for pleasure aside from pages from the new book my crit partner is writing.

Yesterday, however, my desk was clear for the first time in what just seems like forever, so I picked up the ARC for Some Girls Are by Courtney Summers. I was tired, my eyes were wiped out from too much screen time, and I was planning to just read for a few minutes before I caught up on some things here at home that have fallen by the wayside lately.

But then I couldn't put the book down. I read it straight through, and my children have another day of rifling through laundry baskets piled high with clean clothes I didn't get around to folding.

Let me start out by telling you one of my biggest pet peeves in any novel I read, whether it's YA or adult, contemporary or historical, fantasy or mystery: the main character not doing what any normal person in her position would do. It's a simple thing, right? But how many times have you yelled at a character in a book--or an actor in a movie--because they're being just plain stupid? She's storming out on you? Don't give up so easily; go get her! The front door is unlocked when you get home, and you know a serial killer is on the loose? Get back in your car right now!

That being said, the main character in Some Girls Are listened to me! Regina Afton was never predictable, but she was normal, and that's something vital to writing a believable young adult novel, regardless of the genre.

I graduated high school about (*mumblemumble*) years ago, and I remember looking around on graduation night and seeing everyone crying and thinking, "Are you kidding me? You think an end to all of this crap is sad?" I was thrilled to be done. I had some great friends in high school, but I was so relieved to be out of there that I breathed more freely that evening than at any point in the four previous years. I had never been bullied (not past junior high), never been "frozen out," never had the popular clique gang up on me in full force to make my life miserable, but did I loathe a few of them? Absolutely.

So what really surprised me about Some Girls Are is that I empathized with the main character: a mean girl. I didn't always like her and my stomach churned at some of the things she'd done, but Courtney Summers let me actually feel not so much for her but with her. Courtney has a great exchange between Regina and Michael, a boy she and her friends had 'ruined' earlier in high school. She apologizes to him and he just gets pissed, telling her she's not sorry: she just feels guilty.

For me, the scene encapsulated what I got out of this book: this idea of stepping outside of yourself in order to get past yourself.

Those girls I hated in high school who hated me right back? It was so easy for me to separate myself from them: "Here's the line. You're over there because you're mean and nasty. I'm over here because I'm a nice person and would never treat people like you do." But how different was I, really? How different are the bullies from the bullied in Some Girls Are? Had my arch nemesis fallen off the top of that social ladder, would I have welcomed her or shunned her? Would I have said, "I understand. It's hard down here"? Or would I have said, "Serves you right" and walked away? Feeling what other people feel is difficult and can be completely impossible. And when it IS possible, it's also painful. Making that line between them and us as vivid and bold as possible protects us from caring when we don't want to and from empathizing when, honest to goodness, we just want to hate.

This book isn't comfortable to read. It will make you ache. It will make you think way too much about things you probably don't want to think about and haven't thought about in a long time. And that's a really, really good thing, if you ask me. It's the best kind of book for those very reasons.

And as a kind of p.s.: This is the first book I've read in a long time that made me go back and read the last page over and over again because it was so perfect, and because I didn't want to admit it had ended.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009


My 10-year-old son, Owen, loves singing. Loves it. And it's not as though he walks around the house singing all day or that he has a song for every topic (that'd be me) or that we ever have to beg him, please, for the love of all that's holy, stop! No, he loves it in a very healthy way. He sings solos at church during the children's performances and he's singing at the Christmas party this year. And . . . he sings in the school chorus.

The week before Thanksgiving, his school had their annual choir performance, and the day before the parents got to attend, the student body did a run-through. Each grade sang two or three songs, and then the extracurricular chorus sang. Owen, I knew, was the only boy in that chorus this year, but he wasn't embarrassed. But after the run-through, Owen came home for lunch nearly in tears because a couple of the boys in his class teased him for being the only boy in chorus this year. I said, "Do you like singing?" Yes. "Do you want to keep singing?" Yes. "Are these boys kids you'd want to be friends with if you weren't in chorus?" No. "Do you know we love you and your friends love you just as you are?" Yes. "Then what's the problem?"

He went back after lunch and I wanted to follow him so I could go yank those boys around a little, ask them if they're enjoying all of their Miley Cyrus cds, because obviously they think only girls should sing and therefore they only listen to girls sing. Instead, I waited to hear how the second half of Owen's day went. He came home happy. I said, "You seem like you're doing a little better now." He said, "Yeah, I thought about what you said and it really helped."

The next day, when the kids all sang for their families, I was prouder of him than maybe I've ever been. He stood up against the bullies just by getting back up there and singing again. One of the parents tapped my shoulder afterward and said, "Good for him for being willing to be the only boy up there. That took a lot of courage."

I said thank you, but what I really wanted to do was ask why. WHY should it take courage for my 5th grader to be himself? And why do adults acknowledge that it's a matter of courage? Something is very wrong there, isn't it? It should take courage to stand up and deliver a speech if you dread public speaking. It should take courage to go shopping this time of year if you're claustrophobic in crowds. It should take courage to sleep in the dark if you're afraid of what's under your bed. But to sing when you love singing? No. That should be easy. Should be.

I've been thinking a lot since then about what I might have given up along the way because I was bullied, either by kids who meant to hurt me or kids who didn't know what impact their words would have on me--or by adults who were unintentionally callous or casual.

And what have I given up since becoming an adult? What do I risk giving up if I listen to the bullies? And are their voices any louder than my own doubts? How badly do I want to be a writer? Badly enough to keep doing what I love even when I think people are snickering behind their hands? Even when one person says, "This story sucks"? Twenty people? A room full of them?

What have any of us given up by giving in to bullies?