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Writing and reading and books, books, books (and anything that might relate)

December 12, 2013

A book by its cover

Filed under: writing — Tags: , , , , , — jennifer @ 9:53 am

One of the most nerve-inducing moments of the writing life is when your editor tells you the book cover for the book you’ve been utterly consumed by for months, if not years, has been created, and not only that, the folks at the publishing house are all, each and every one of them, very, very, very excited about it and they hope you will be too.  (Translation:  We really hope you’re not going to cause a fuss and ask us to alter the design in any way.)


My latest novel, American Blonde, is due out July 29, 2014.  It’s the fourth volume of the Velva Jean series, but can also stand on its own.  This week, the book cover was released, and everyone at Penguin/Plume is very excited about it and they love it and hope I will too.

And I do.  Oh, how I do!  This is my seventh book cover, and it may well be my favorite.

A little description of the story:

A fearless and spirited pilot conquers Hollywood. Now can she survive movie stardom?

In 1945, Velva Jean Hart is a bona fide war heroine. After a newsreel films her triumphant return to America, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer promises to make her a star. As the renamed “Kit Rogers,” she navigates the movie sets, recording sessions, parties, staged romances, and occasional backstabbing that accompany her newfound fame. But when one of her best friends dies mysteriously and the most powerful studio in the world launches a cover-up, Velva Jean goes in search of the truth— risking her own life, as well as her heart, in the process.

Set during Hollywood’s Golden Age and peopled with a cast of unforgettable characters, American Blonde will mesmerize readers of The Chaperone as well as fans of the Velva Jean series.

(Pre-order your copy now!)

December 4, 2013

Introducing Germ Magazine

Germ [noun] — the origin of something; a thing that may serve as the basis of further growth or development (as in “germ of happiness”).


Germ Magazine was born out of my first YA novel (and eighth book), All the Bright Places.  The novel– about a girl who learns to live from a boy who intends to die– will be released from Knopf/Random House in early 2015.

In the book, Violet, my female character, creates and runs a website called Germ.  As I was writing the book, I thought, What if I were to create an actual Germ…?

Although Germ was originally inspired by All the Bright Places, it has quickly taken on a life of its own.  With a staff of twenty-three, our official launch date is January 1.

What we hope to do is offer girls (and guys), ages high school and beyond, a place where they can learn and grow, get informed and get empowered, as well as be entertained.  We like pretty things but we’re also concerned with the harder stuff.  Think of us as the Katniss Everdeen of magazines. We intend to tackle issues big and small, serious and funny, while also encouraging writers and artists and other creative types to share their work.  And while we might be more geared toward girls, guys are welcome too.  We hope they’ll come and hang out and maybe send us love letters.


You can submit your creative writing or article ideas at any time.  We’re looking for:  short stories, novel excerpts, essays, poetry, songs, scenes from plays and screenplays, videos, photographs, artwork, cartoons, doodles.  We want to hear from you!  The theme for our first issue is New:  new beginnings, new loves, new cities, new schools, new experiences, new lives.

As we like to say, you start here.

(Get to know Team Germ!)


October 10, 2013

Changing a book title you love

ohtheplacesyoullgo_ipad_screen1large-642x481One of the questions I get asked most often is about titles– where do my book titles come from, does the editor come up with them, do I come up with them, does the publisher weigh in?

The answer can vary from book to book.  I named Ada Blackjack, Velva Jean Learns to Drive, Velva Jean Learns to Fly, and the forthcoming Velva Jean novel, American Blonde (out July 29, 2014).

My mother came up with The Ice Master, while my editor at Simon & Schuster– after the two of us brainstormed words and phrases associated with the 1980s– suggested The Aqua Net Diaries.  My editor at Penguin created Becoming Clementine after the marketing department decided that the third Velva Jean should have its own stand-alone title.

I’m happily attached to the original book title of my first YA novel (due out from Knopf in early ‘15)— You Make Me Lovely.  Yes, I named it, but if I saw that title in a store, I would probably pick up the book out of curiosity if nothing else.

But I’m a girl.  And my publisher (which includes that very important marketing department, as well as the cover designer) is worried that the word “lovely” might be a turnoff to boys of all ages, and since one of my main characters is a guy, I can see their point.  This is a book that should definitely— subject-wise and character-wise— appeal to guys too.

In my search, I first combed through my manuscript to see if there might be a line that would not only fit but stand out.  Then I started combing through the works of everyone from E. E. Cummings to Shakespeare to Lord Byron to Dr. Seuss.

I whittled five pages of possibilities down to twelve titles, which I sent to my editor, who then polled her colleagues at Knopf and Random House.  One week later, there was a clear winner:  All the Bright Places.  I got the idea from Dr. Seuss’s wonderful Oh, the Places You’ll Go!  And I have to say, it’s not only fitting for the story, it’s really starting to grow on me…

oh-the-places-you-ll-go-dr-seuss-screenshot-3Somehow you’ll escape
all that waiting and staying.
You’ll find the bright places
where Boom Bands are playing.

With banner flip-flapping,
once more you’ll ride high!
Ready for anything under the sky.

Of course, now I have to rename my documents and get used to calling it All the Bright Places instead of You Make Me Lovely, but one step at a time.

October 3, 2013

Writers on writing — learning and loving the craft

When I met Scott Boyer in 2010, he was in the thick of writing his first book.  I was working on Velva Jean Learns to Fly at the time, and we formed a kind of informal writers group, sharing not only our work but our thoughts and feelings on the process.  Unlike me, Scott didn’t grow up writing.  He studied business at UC Berkeley.  But when it comes to writing, he is one of the most passionate and dedicated people I’ve ever met.  To celebrate his book’s release, I’ve asked Scott to write a few pieces about his writing journey. 

BobbyEtherfrontcoverWriters Write

by R. Scott Boyer

It’s Fall 2010 and I’m heading to a writing class on the UCLA campus. Jennifer Niven is with me. While I’m still learning to write, Jennifer is already an accomplished author and, as such, has been invited to speak to the class about the process of writing a novel. Arriving a few minutes early, we take seats across from the instructor, near the head of the horseshoe of tables surrounding the chalkboard. I’ve never seen my fellow students so animated. They can’t wait to talk to Jennifer and hear what she has to say. Even the teacher looks eager.

Jennifer talks for a while about writing in general and about her books, especially Velva Jean Learns to Fly, which she’s still working on the time. As usual, she’s charming and witty, with everyone hanging on her every word. The other students all have tons of questions. The more they ask, however, the more I hear one question asked lots of different ways: how do you find time to write? When do you write? Where do you find the energy?

Jennifer and I exchange a look. It’s a topic we’ve discussed many times. To us, the answer is both profoundly simple and deeply complex: writers write. When you have a passion to write and a story to tell, it’s often more difficult NOT to write than it is to sit down at the computer and start typing. A better question may have been: how do you manage any sleep when you’ve got a story inside you trying to claw its way out?

Now it’s present day, nearly three years since that class ended. I just finished publishing my first book, Bobby Ether and the Academy, less than three weeks ago. Jennifer and I are talking and I find myself asking a whole different set of questions: how does anyone get their book noticed? How does one manage all the marketing and social media needed to connect with readers? How does anyone find time to keep writing when there are so many other aspects to being a successful author that require attention? (For the answer to this one, see my previous answer.)

Of course, for someone like Jennifer, who is both incredibly talented and blessed with an amazing team (agent, editor, publisher, etc.), some of these issues take care of themselves, but many do not. It takes hard work and commitment no matter what stage you’re at. It also takes a deep love of writing; a refusal to quit and a willingness to do what has to be done because you wrote a great book and, gosh darn it, people are going to hear about it!

For any of you just starting out as a writer I offer this advice: just write. Don’t worry about anything else. Write what you love, because you love it, and find happiness in bringing the story to life. For those of you further down the road, perhaps with a book or two already written, I offer this advice: ask Jennifer, she knows way more about it than me.ScottandPatch

I’m kidding, please don’t bombard dear Jennifer with emails.  Try this instead: do research on the web, engage in book clubs, chat rooms, and blogs about writing. Connect with other authors, ask questions, and really listen to the answers. Perhaps the greatest skill I possess is not the ability to write, but the ability to learn. That skill has served me better than any other as I’ve advanced along the continuum from dreamer to published author.

For anyone interested, my book, Bobby Ether and the Academy, is a young adult adventure story that blends urban fantasy with new-age/spiritual fiction (Think Harry Potter meets The Celestine Prophecy). It’s full of excitement, mystery, and just a hint of magic. Information about the book and about me can be found on my website.

Scott Boyer grew up in Santa Monica, CA and still resides in the Los Angeles area. Graduating from the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley in 1996, he started writing Bobby Ether and the Academy with the goal of blending YA fantasy with spiritual fiction. Nowadays, Scott splits his time between helping his father manage an insurance brokerage, playing with his Shepherd-mix rescue dog, Patch, and writing the sequel to his first book, the soon to be released Bobby Ether and the Temple of Eternity.

(Note from Jennifer:  Please bombard me with emails!  I love hearing from readers and other writers.)

October 1, 2013

Brave new genre

RHmasthead 2On June 4, I wrote a post about the things I’ve been struggling with this year– eye problems, nightmare deadlines, and the death of my literary agent, to name a few.  That same June day, I began talking to new agents.  Days after that, I started writing my first YA book.  Although I’m a huge fan and reader of YA (almost always my go-to read-for-pleasure genre of choice), I’ve so far spent my literary life in nonfiction and adult historical fiction.  Everything I’ve written, even my high school memoir, is a period piece.  But I’ve had the itch for a long while to try my hand at YA.

Following my agent’s death, I sat down and thought good and hard about what I wanted to write next.  Not what I should write or what might make sense to write, but what I really, really wanted to write (which, for me, is always synonymous with what I really, really want to read).  For the past five years, I’ve been immersed in the voice of one character– Velva Jean Hart.  I’ve taken her from the Depression to World War II to the post-war period.  I recently finished writing the fourth Velva Jean adventure, American Blonde, which will be released July 29, 2014.  I love Velva Jean.  But creatively, I was ready for something different.

I wanted to write something edgy.

I wanted to write something contemporary.

I wanted to write something tough, hard, sad, but funny.

I wanted to write from a boy’s point of view.

There was an idea I’d been playing with for years, and at the end of May, I pulled it out.  It’s the story of a girl who learns to live from a boy who intends to die.

That week of June 4, I began writing.  And in some ways it was as if I’d never written before!  There’s a whole new level of responsibility that comes with writing YA, especially when you’re dealing with a hard and sensitive subject.  It was very important to me, even as I was still figuring out the story, to strike the right balance of serious and light, and to make a tough subject (in this case, suicide) palatable, relatable, and educational, without seeming as if I’m trying to be educational.  It was also very important to me to nail the YA voice so that it seems authentic and not false or forced in any way.  Each day, I sat down at the computer afraid that I wouldn’t be able to do justice to the story, the characters, and the subject matter.

But when I was able to silence the worries and just write, the story and characters–and their voices– came quickly and naturally, as if they had been there all along waiting for me.

In July, I finished writing You Make Me Lovely.  On July 18, I signed with my new (fabulous, amazing, brilliant) agent, Kerry Sparks.  A couple of weeks after that, once Kerry and I had edited the manuscript, she put it on the desks of publishers.  One week later, we sold it to Knopf/Random House in a two-book preempt.

Now I am implementing the edits of my wise and wonderful Knopf editor, Allison Wortche, as well as my own.  After I hand those in, I’ll begin working on the second YA.

I’m proud of all my books, but I may just be proudest of this one.  It will be out in early 2015, and I’ll be posting updates periodically.

(Next up:  Changing a book title you love.)


PW Bookshelf



August 30, 2013

When a character steps off the page and goes places you never imagined


Briana Harley is an über-talented musician, singer, songwriter, and devoted reader of Velva Jean Learns to Drive.  In 2010, she wrote to say that she’d written a song inspired by Velva Jean and her story.  We’ve since become great friends.  She has also written music for the lyrics that appear at the end of each Velva Jean book, recorded a CD of Velva Jean songs, and, most recently, chosen Velva Jean’s favorite hymn as her project for her Choral Arranging class at Vanguard University.  It’s hard to describe just how cool it is to have your story and characters take on a new life outside of the book, and just how lovely a feeling it is when someone really gets (and is affected by) a story you wrote. 

Arranging “The Unclouded Day” by Briana Harley

As a music composition major I had to take Choral Arranging, which I was  excited about. However, I was the only one who registered for the class so it turned into private choral arranging lessons. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to do “The Unclouded Day,” because I’m always thinking of Velva Jean (haha). As my professor and I went over the syllabus on my first lesson, he explained to me what the project requirements were– I could choose to arrange for mixed choir, men’s chorus, or women’s chorus.  It could be any song I wanted.  He told me that people have done the Beatles before or even current pop songs, but explained that hymns usually turn out the best.

So from that moment I was set on arranging “The Unclouded Day.”

I chose to arrange it for Women’s Chorus for a few reasons:  being a female, I would be able to arrange for female voices better, and I used to be in Women’s Chorus so I just had more knowledge about how I could arrange it.  And also because I wanted to capture Velva Jean in the arrangement (I couldn’t for the life of me hear low male bass voices singing and think of Velva Jean).  booksoup3

I knew the form of the piece from the beginning. It starts out with the first verse being a solo.  My goal was to represent 10-year-old Velva Jean from the first book, before her mother died, while she was still innocent.  The first chorus starts with two voices and adds more voices with each line until it grows to be the full choir.  This reminds me of when young Velva Jean was baptized in the river. When I picture a good ol’ fashioned baptism, I always imagine one person singing and then slowly the entire church joining them, which is where my idea came from.

After that I take each verse and chorus and add a little bit more to it each time. It started off simple and straightforward, but then I started adding more tricky descants and blue-note harmonies to give it more flavor. This is supposed to show Velva Jean’s learning and growing, how even when times get tough Velva Jean still pushes through with grace and spunk! She learns from everything she’s been through and is ready for the next battle.

There’s a section where I decided to throw in “one-liners” from other recognizable hymns. These are hymns from my “Velva Jean playlist”– even though they aren’t mentioned in the book and some of them were written after Velva Jean’s time, they still remind me of her. Anytime I hear them I think that Velva Jean could sing the heck out of them.  Also I’ve always been a fan of medleys, which was my first idea.  But there were too many hymns I wanted to feature, plus I still wanted it to be “The Unclouded Day” arrangement.  I didn’t want to have to change the title to “The Unclouded Day & other hymns,” which is what gave me the idea to just use a line from the other hymns while “The Unclouded Day” was still being sung by other voices.  Honestly, my choral arranging professor wasn’t too fond of the idea, but when I presented it to the Women’s Chorus director she loved it!  The last verse is a solo as well but with the choir singing back-up.  To me this represented Velva Jean all grown up– she still has a young spirit but she’s lived a bit, so this solo is a little slower and more heartfelt.

And then it once again ends with the choir singing “The Unclouded Day” (and other hymns) just to show all that Velva Jean has been through– but at the end of the day her heart still lies at “home where no storm clouds rise.”


August 21, 2013

Elmore Leonard’s Rules for Writing

The great Elmore Leonard, author of forty-five novels and master of the crime thriller, died yesterday morning at home.  He was eighty-seven.  He leaves behind legions of fans and some very wise and brilliant and useful words about writing.  I especially like numbers 3, 4, 5, and 10, although I agree with all of them.  These rules are excerpted from his more detailed 2001 New York Times article.

Writers on Writing:  Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle

Published: July 16, 2001

These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.

1. Never open a book with weather.

2. Avoid prologues.

3. Never use a verb other than ”said” to carry dialogue.

The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ”said” . . .

. . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin.

5. Keep your exclamation points under control.

You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.

6. Never use the words ”suddenly” or ”all hell broke loose.”

I have noticed that writers who use ”suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

Unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison.

And finally:

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.


August 15, 2013

The steps of writing a book

My cousin’s twelve-year-old daughter loves to write (and is already a wonderful writer).  For the past three years, Elizabeth and my author mother have had their own long distance writers group.  My mom is one of the wisest people I know, and I’m lucky to have her as my mentor.  Here is a recent exchange between Mom and Elizabeth that I thought might be helpful to writers of all ages.



Hi Aunt Penny,

I have been wanting to write lately, but I don’t know what to write about. I was wondering if you could tell me the steps you go through when you write a book.

Thanks, Elizabeth


Dear Elizabeth:  I’m so glad to hear from you, and I am happy that you have been wanting to write lately.  Sometimes the hardest part of writing is deciding what to write about.

The first step I go through when I write a book is choosing what to write about. I try to listen to my head and my heart.  I need to know what I THINK about a subject, and what I FEEL about it.  If I’m not excited about writing about my subject, chances are good that readers won’t be excited about reading about it.

When I am deciding what to write about, I think about these two things:
Writing about what I already know a lot about.
Writing about what I don’t know much about yet.

I believe you already know a lot about your family; your pets; dancing; snowy winters; writing, especially detective stories; other activities you enjoy; your feelings about having a brother and a sister; your feelings about different teachers you have had; your feelings about growing up– and lots more things.  I think readers your age and grown-up readers will be very interested in reading what you write about any of these things.

I’ve written five books about people.  I didn’t know much at all about Carl Sandburg or James Earl Jones or Edward Steichen or Thornton Wilder when I started writing about them– but I did lots of research and learned more and more.  It was an adventure to learn about them and then to write about them.  Is there a person or a place or an event or an invention or a discovery that you’d like to know more about?  If you are excited about something, you can be a detective and learn as much about that subject as you can, and write about it.

As you probably already know, you have to be excited about what you are writing if you are going to do your best writing.

Your cousin Jennifer is a writer, and she says she loves to write books that she would like to read.

I suggest that you make a list of things you’d like to write about or stories you’d like to tell.  Set a timer and see how many ideas you can put on your list in 5 minutes.  Take 10 minutes if you want to.  Maybe something will pop out on that list that gets you excited to write about it.

I enjoyed your detective/spy stories so very much.  Maybe you’ll use the same character, or invent a new character, and write another one of those.  Maybe you’ll try writing poems.

You are already a wonderful writer, Elizabeth, and you have lots to say and lots to tell.  You have a great imagination and an excellent vocabulary.  Most writers have times when they don’t know what to write.  Just listen to your mind and your imagination and your  heart, and you will find what you want to write.

Lots and lots of love– Aunt Penny

August 7, 2013

Literary snacking — the food that helps me write


When you spend hundreds of hours at your desk each week (or so it seems), you need the inevitable snack to keep you company.  By the time lunchtime rolls around, I’m usually so deep in the writing flow or smack in the middle of wrestling the creative alligators (as Hemingway called it) that the last thing I want to think about is how to feed myself.  And you have to feed your brain because you cannot write hungry.  At least, I can’t.  I mean technically I can, but it’s not the kind of writing that makes sense.

For some reason, walking three blocks to Robeks is easier than stopping to make a salad– there’s just something so nice about taking a short stroll in the California sunshine and having someone else do the preparing.  But most days of late I can be found with a little army of sustenance lined up by my computer so that I don’t even have to move if I don’t want to.  Raw almonds, Trader Joe’s Just Mango Slices, my 32 oz. purple water bottle, some lemon ginger Yogi tea, and raw carrots.  I know– yuck.  I’d prefer popcorn, my favorite snack ever, but that’s more of an end-of-the-hard-hard-writing-day reward, and besides, it doesn’t give me the brain energy I need to write.

I’m not alone in literary snacking.  My brilliant and beautiful writer mother has a weakness for chocolate malted milk balls– especially the ones that come from here— so much so that she won’t let herself keep them in the house except on very special occasions.  (Stocking the pantry with foods you love is VERY dangerous when you work at home!)


The New York Times wrote a fun piece on “Snacks of the Great Scribblers,” that reveals Lord Byron drank vinegar (which had the added effect of keeping his weight down), Truman Capote favored mint tea and martinis, and Emily Dickinson snacked on her own homemade baked bread.

The trouble happens when you plow through your regular snacks and find yourself rummaging through the refrigerator and cabinets for ANYTHING– the last few stale Triscuits at the bottom of the box, the apple sauce you bought last Christmas which is probably still good, the half eaten energy bar floating in the bottom of your purse.  This is when you need to go to the store and stock up again, except, of course, that there isn’t any time for that.

What keeps you going at your desk?

July 8, 2013

Bookish Restaurants for Book Lovers

TheWindingStairWhen I was growing up, our house overflowed with books.  Mom was (and is) a writer, and my dad was a professor and college administrator.  My parents also loved to cook.  At ages six and seven, one of my favorite games of Pretend involved owning a bookstore-restaurant (located on the loft/attic-like top floor of our house in Maryland), a place I ran myself when I wasn’t traveling the globe with my rock band solving crimes.  My mother would ask for a table and I would serve her snacks among the books.

“May I read as I eat?” she would ask.  “Of course,” I would answer.  “That is the whole point.”

Last Halloween, my fiancé and BFF and I wound up our Great Irish Adventure with a lunch at The Winding Stair, this charming little slip of a restaurant on Dublin’s Lower Quay, overlooking the River Liffey.  (I love how charming and literary that sentence sounds.  Ah, Ireland…)  The bookstore-café takes its name from William Butler Yeats’s poem–

“My Soul. I summon to the winding ancient stair;
Set all your mind upon the steep ascent,
Upon the broken, crumbling battlement,
Upon the breathless starlit air…”

If you ever find yourself in Dublin, I can’t recommend The Winding Stair enough for the food and the atmosphere– in the small, bright space above the bookstore, among the books lining the walls, we ate The Best Shepherd’s Pie Ever.

My own home city, Los Angeles, has its share of books and bars, but here are some other book-themed eateries from around the world, all of which I’m longing to see.

If you have any favorite literary bar/restaurants, please share– I’d love to know about them and add them to my travel list!

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