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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.)

9780452298217_AmericanBlon_CVF

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!)

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

 

 

June 4, 2013

The book that nearly killed me (and my loyal literary cat Lulu)

TiredMe

On Saturday, I sent American Blonde off to New York and my editor.  From February till June 1, I conceptualized, outlined, researched, wrote, and edited 753 pages, which became the 525 pages I emailed on Saturday.  I’ve had to write most of the Velva Jean books quickly– Velva Jean Learns to Fly and Becoming Clementine each were completed in about nine months– but this is the fastest I’ve ever written a book.  (Even though most of the time I was working on it, I felt as if I’d been writing it my whole life and would always write it and that it would never end.  Ever.)

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.  I handed in the original version of American Blonde last September.  But by the time I received my editor’s notes on the manuscript months later, I’d decided that the book needed to be rewritten from page 15 on.  Not just tweaked or edited, but COMPLETELY REWRITTEN, as in an entirely new plot, new characters, new everything.  This wasn’t something my editor requested, but I knew in my writerly bones what the story needed to be.  And it wasn’t.  So I wrote it.  Again.  Only in less time!

I went through more upheaval while working on this project than I did with any of the others.  To name just two of the upheavaliest… There were the recurrent eye problems from sitting at the computer every single day since February 1.  These last few weeks, I often had to type with my eyes closed because it hurt too much to keep them open.  Ahhh… And in March, my wondrous literary agent of fifteen years went missing, only to turn up in the hospital, where he died April 27 very unexpectedly.  I’d been with John Ware since the beginning, and suddenly, in the midst of the hardest work I’ve ever done, I found myself without my creative champion, mentor, and dear friend.  (During the roughest deadlines, John would call me just to tell me a joke or leave an old, scratchy blues tune on my voicemail.  “Onward, kid,” he would say.)

TiredLulu

So when I crossed that long-dreamed-of finish line this weekend, the only sad moment was realizing all over again that John isn’t here to read the book.

But my eyes have slowly but steadily started to clear a little, and my mind is beginning to relax a little (as much as it ever does), and I am damn happy with the state the manuscript is in. (Lulu, incidentally, is exhausted. She has been sleeping nearly non-stop since Saturday, and this is a cat who rarely ever ever sleeps.)

As my mother says, You write it anyway and in spite of and because you have to (on so many levels).  And as someone tells Velva Jean in American Blonde:  “You have to be willing to work.  Just when you think you’re giving your all, know that you can go past that and give more.  You can always give more.  Don’t give up.  Don’t just rely on what you know you can do.  Think of what you hope you can do and then do it.”

Here’s a very tiny (and I mean seconds-tiny) movie that captures how it feels to have this book– for the time being– off my desk:

THIS JUST IN:  My editor has sent that manuscript back to me, asking me to trim 19,000 words before she reads.  And so, it seems, I spoke too soon…

April 20, 2013

Things I couldn’t write without

As many of you know, I’m currently doing a very fast, very intense, very daunting, and very complete rewrite of the fourth Velva Jean novel, American Blonde (due out next year).

In this last stretch of the Book from Hell, as I’ve taken to calling it– otherwise known as That Damn Book– I’m making a list of the things that are helping me get to the end of the Worst Deadline I’ve Ever Known.

(Not including my computer and my imagination, of course. And my loved ones, who, I hope, will still love me once the book is completed.)

Thank you to:

  • My readers, who write me the most wonderful notes and emails, reminding me why I’m doing this in the first place
  • Robeks, which gives my weary brain sustenance
  • Scrivener, the greatest software for writers ever
  • My early morning walk/workout/girltime in the park with my friend Lisa Brucker (please watch her show, Ex-Wives of Rock!)
  • John Green, Melvin Burgess, and Raymond Chandler
  • Google
  • My fab intern, Laura Burdine, who, at lightning speed, can research everything from wire tapping in the 1940s to the Los Angeles streetcar system circa 1946 to the U.S. postal system in postwar America (not to mention her ability to help one brainstorm love triangles and ways in which to solve a murder)
  • The CW, Switched at Birth, and Adam-12, for good, fluffy fun
  • Newspaperarchive.com
  • My literary cats (a special shout out to Miss Lulu for being at my side throughout each long work day)
  • My copy of MGM: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot, which I’ve practically worn to dust
  • My team of experts– private investigator, medical examiner, and toxicologist– who are patiently answering my endless questions
  • Daryl Dixon, the most inspiring badass I know (or wish I knew), and my hero (as well as pretend boyfriend)
  • Lululemon, maker of the most comfortable writing clothes on the planet
  • Briana Harley, who not only helps me with Velva Jean’s music, but is the very best resource for Velva Jean idea bouncing–  after all, she knows Velva Jean almost as well as I do
  • My bosu ball and elliptical machine, which are productive places to have a good book think
  • Netflix, which, without complaining, delivers 1940s-era movies to my door or directly to my TV
  • The Los Angeles Public Library
  • And Ryan Bingham, who is Butch Dawkins

I couldn’t do it without them.

Speaking of Ryan Bingham, here’s a video that I use for inspiration. It really could be Velva Jean’s friend Butch sitting on her granddaddy’s porch.

March 13, 2013

Deadfalling, tiger-trapping, and exploring your attic: Ray Bradbury’s 8 rules for writers

Growing up, one of my favorite writers was Ray Bradbury. He was the primary influence on my teenage writing. He taught me the importance of a terrific first line, and an even stronger last line. He taught me the importance of writing clear, strong sentences that cut to the heart of the matter– no excess, no fat. During my years on my Indiana high school speech team, the story I competed and won with most frequently was “The October Game,” his chilling short tale about a husband, a wife, a daughter, and a deadly Halloween party.

His fiction spanned genres– horror, fantasy, science fiction, mystery. The book I love most is his collected short stories, but in Zen in the Art of Writing, he writes about writing. Because I’m often asked to share my own rules on writing, I thought this time I would share some inspiration from someone I find inspiring:

1. Write with gusto. “[If] you are writing without zest, without gusto, without love, without fun, you are only half a writer. It means you are so busy keeping your eye on the commercial market, or one ear peeled for the avant-garde coterie, that you are not being yourself. You don’t even know yourself. For the first thing a writer should be is — excited.”

2. In quickness is truth. “The faster you blurt, the more swiftly you write, the more honest you are. In hesitation is thought. In delay comes the effort for a style, instead of leaping upon truth which is the only style worth deadfalling and tiger-trapping.” In other words, just get it down.

3. Write who you are. We’ve all heard “write what you know.” But this can be limiting. Ray Bradbury believed in writing what you know but also writing what you can imagine. “Do not, for the vanity of intellectual publications, turn away from what you are — the material within you that makes you individual, and therefore indispensable to others.”

4. Don’t write for money or fame. “If only we could remember that fame and money are gifts given us only after we have gifted the world with our best, our lonely, our individual truths.”

5. Feed the muse daily. “By living well, by observing as you live, by reading and observing as you read, you have fed your most original self. By training in writing, by repetitious exercise, imitation, good example, you have made a clean, well-lighted place to keep the Muse. You have given her, him, it, or whatever, room to turn around in. And through training, you have relaxed yourself enough not to stare discourteously when inspiration comes into the room.”

6. Don’t be afraid to explore the attic. It was Ray Bradbury’s belief that we each hide a “dark attic” in our minds– one we may be too frightened to face, but which harbors the most valuable, exciting material. According to him, we cannot, should not be afraid of it. “Alert the secret self, taste the darkness. Your own Thing stands waiting ‘way up there’ in the attic shadows. If you speak softly, and write any old word that wants to jump out of your nerves onto the page… Your Thing at the top of your stairs in your own private night… may well come down.”

7. Surprise yourself. In fiction, it’s important to have an idea where your story is headed, but you also need to be open to where it wants to go, and where it will lead you. “Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations. Plot is observed after the fact, not before.”

8. Do the work you were born to do — and no one else’s. Bradbury believed we all have a creative purpose. As my mother often tells me, only you can write the book you were meant to write. Give five people the same subject matter, and each will write a different and unique story. It’s important to be who you are and recognize that your voice is original. In his poem “What I Do Is Me, For That I Came,” Bradbury writes: “Be not another. Be the self I signed you in your blood… I leave you gifts of Fate most secret; find no other’s Fate, For if you do, no grave is deep enough for your despair, No country far enough to hide your loss.”

(Thanks to David McMillan for the inspiration.)

February 7, 2013

The creative hunch

“A hunch is creativity trying to tell you something.” — Frank Capra

Right now I am at my desk many, many hours every day (that includes weekends). The current project: American Blonde, the fourth novel in the Velva Jean series. Technically, I’m supposed to be editing the novel right now, based on my editor’s first round of notes. But what I’m actually doing is re-envisioning and re-outlining and, for the most part, rewriting the entire book from about page 15 on, which means I am throwing out around 600 pages of material.

While my editor did have lots of notes, rewriting the book wasn’t one of them. That’s all me.

I have until May 1st to do this, and it’s going to be– let me think of the polite word– challenging. The easier thing would be to implement her notes and some of my own, cut and rewrite here and there, work on one of the characters who needs working on, and maybe move some scenes around or re-envision small sections. But that would be cheating Velva Jean and American Blonde and, ultimately, myself.

Because I know, deep in my creative bones, the story I want to tell in this book. The story I should tell. The story that is more organic to Velva Jean and her journey and the setting she finds herself in. It’s the story I almost wrote last year when I was working on the book for the first time, but ended up putting aside for one reason or another, mostly time constraints– I just didn’t feel I had enough time to do that original story justice in the short period I had to write it.

The lesson: Always, always listen to your first instinct. This is something I’ve learned time and again. Usually I listen. This time I didn’t. Now I have less time than before to come up with, essentially, a brand new book. But it has to be done.

If I didn’t rewrite it, maybe no one would know. Maybe they would even enjoy the story as I wrote it last summer. But I would know. And every time I picked up that book, I would think of what it could have, should have been.

So the next time you have a creative instinct, listen to it, try it out, sit with it for a while, let it simmer, see if it flourishes. Honor it. That particular idea may not be something you need to follow all the way to the end. But then again, it may be exactly where your story wants to go.

It’s funny how stories let you know the way they want to be told.

December 24, 2012

A Christmas Story

When I was nine years old, my parents and I moved from Maryland (where we lived on the water and sailed and ate fresh seafood, which we often caught ourselves, and spent time on our own little sliver of beach) to landlocked Indiana (where a narrow creek ran through our back yard).

I wasn’t one bit happy about this move, and our very first Christmas there I wrote a story, which I also illustrated, that… shall we say… reflected this.

All these years later, on Christmas Eve 2012, I’d like to share it with you.

The Late Christmas

In Hoosier City everything was a dark gray. The mail boxes were gray, the people’s clothes were gray, what they ate was gray, and the sky was gray. Not one person was happy.

One day a jolly old man came to Hoosier City. He met Mr. Vox Poxie, the king of gray. Mr. Vox Poxie inquired what he was doing on his property.

“Why I…” the trespasser stuttered.

“Enough!” commanded the king. The king led Santa Claus (for that was his name) through the town. Santa stared sadly at the people. An old woman who was hanging battered clothes on an old clothesline in her tiny, gray yard almost broke his heart.

They walked on. Santa Claus eyed the shabby houses with little children playing unhappily in their yards. A tear rolled down his cheek and soaked his beard thoroughly.

Finally they reached Mr. Vox Poxie’s castle. The king invited Santa Claus inside. “Now once again, why are you here?” the king inquired.

“Well I…”

“Enough!” said the king. Santa Claus stared at the king, thinking this man is crazy! “Well now, what is your name name?” asked the king.

“Kris Kringle. But everybody calls me Santa Claus.”

“Oh well, why are you here then?” asked the king.

“Well I…” Santa Claus started.

“Enough chatter!” cried the king. “Let me show you around.” Santa Claus followed the king through room after room until they were back in the main room.

“You never did tell me why you were here,” said the king.

“I did try, you know,” said Santa. “My sleigh broke down. You see, Prancer and Dancer have this thing going between each other, Dancer being a girl, and Prancer being a…”

“Enough!” shouted the king.

“You might not get any Christmas presents if you keep that temper,” said Santa. “Well anyway, they stopped flying and started to talk, and the sleigh stopped, and here I am,” finished Santa, quite out of breath from talking.

“Oh, I see,” said the king.

“Do you know of a hotel that I could stay in?”

“Oh heavens no!” exclaimed the king. “You can sleep in my wife’s room.”

“Won’t she mind?” asked Santa.

“Her? She’s dead!” said the king.

“Oh,” said Santa Claus. The next morning when the king went in to see what Santa Claus wanted for breakfast, he wasn’t there. But there was a note attached to the post. It said: Dear Mr. Vox Poxie, I have left. But I’ll be back for Christmas. Santa Claus.

The king gasped. Christmas? What was Christmas? He did not know it, but that very day was Christmas Eve.

When he got up the next day, there was gray snow on the ground. No Santa, no presents. The next day and the next day, no Christmas. No Santa. No toys.

On the third day, he awoke in the night to sleigh bells. Was it? Could it be?

Yes it was. It was Santa Claus!

Quickly, the king hopped back into bed, and the next morning everything was green! The houses were new! The people were happy! Everybody was playing with toys! Even though Christmas was late, it was a nice one! And everybody lived happily ever after!

December 3, 2012

When a bookcase isn’t just a bookcase

When I was growing up, I loved Nancy Drew. Her stories were always full of tunnels and secret passageways and walls that became doors if you knew just where to press. These tunnels and passageways meant mystery and danger and, of course, excitement. I love this kind of thing so much, I even wrote a secret staircase into Becoming Clementine:

Beyond the glass case was a door, and Gossie opened this and I followed her inside. Bookcases stood on three walls. She shut the door tight behind us and plucked a book out of the middle shelf. I watched as she pressed a button in the wood. Another door swung open, which led into a small room. Rising up out of the middle of it, like a ship’s hatch, was a narrow set of stairs with no railing…

As I’ve been re-envisioning my office this past weekend, I find myself daydreaming about having my very own bookcase that leads to a secret room beyond…

Kind of like these:

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