writing

Worthy of a Crown

Last week, I taught a writing workshop at The Hyde Collection where we took inspiration from the Francisco Goya exhibit (on view now through 4/26!).

After exploring animal symbolism in literature and Goya’s art, the final “assignment” was to write a 500-word story including an animal to represent any concept, person, or concern.

My husband urged me to do the assignment myself, beforehand. So, I wrote about a young buck that visited our yard last summer. It represented my oldest son, growing up too soon for this sentimental momma.

Halfway into writing it, I started crying. So hard, I had to step away from the computer. I finally got it down but then when I told my mom about it, water works all over again! I didn’t even read it aloud to my husband but sobbed to him over the phone at the mere mention of it. It’s not best writing in the world, but it’s raw and honest.

Writing is so good for the soul. It feeds you. It frees you. It rises above all the crap to elevate what’s important in the world. This is just one example.

Would you like to read my piece?

Worthy of a Crown
JD Spero

Deer often visit our yard. Beyond our property line at the base of the woods is a stream where they like to drink. Typically, we see them at dawn or dusk, nibbling at winter’s craggy brush, foraging for food. Always in twos or threes, sometimes with a fawn, they can be seen bounding away at the slightest sound, white tails raised like truce flags. We’re always delighted to see them, and believe their visits carry good luck.

Just last week, as my three boys left for the bus stop, two deer stilled at the sound of their voices before escaping gracefully and soundlessly into the thick woods.

It’s the first and only year all three of my boys take the same school bus. Next year, my oldest, AJ, will be in high school—a fact I have to keep repeating to believe. Despite the universal warnings, AJ has gone and left babyland and little-kid-hood behind without my permission. When did he start clipping his own toenails? At what point did he stop taking baths and start showering? Wasn’t it just yesterday all three played in the tub together? He does his own laundry, makes his own lunches and breakfasts. His face has a sculpted look to it suddenly, emphasized by his braces somehow. Not only is he an avid athlete, he lifts weights at the gym. His hugs don’t melt into me anymore but hold a strength that never fails to surprise me. How can he be changing so much right in front of my eyes, and I don’t see it?

 

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AJ on his 14th birthday

Last spring, we removed some low-hanging branches from a giant oak in our front yard. As if in protest, the tree shed boughs for weeks, blanketing the yard with acorns. One day, around noontime, a single deer stood there, sampling the fallen goods. Unusual, considering the time of day and its aloneness. I watched, fascinated, and noticed budding antlers on the creature—each a couple inches long. I gasped in awe—a young buck!

AJ still has some growing to do. One of the smallest kids in his class, it can be a sore topic in our house. As a mom, I’m secretly conflicted. Of course, I want him to grow and thrive and reach his physical potential. I would never want him to feel self-conscious about anything, especially something so temporary and superficial. Another part, perhaps shamefully, doesn’t want him to get any bigger. Part of me wants him to be a kid forever and live under my roof and eat my dinners and do his homework at our kitchen table—always. Doesn’t every mom want that?

Our tree stopped shedding after a few weeks. And the young buck stopped coming by. He’s probably fully grown by now, perhaps has found a mate. Or maybe some other young bachelors to help him find his way. I like to think about how he must look these days—regal against the snow, stately among the trees, with a big beautiful cradle of antlers.

I like to think about how AJ will look, fully grown, so much like his handsome father, staying true to his wise and generous spirit while navigating the maze of adulthood. It’s exciting to think about what he might do for a career and imagine all the amazing ways he’ll contribute to the world. Because he’s got so much to offer. Someday, I hope he’ll find a mate, fall in love and have a family of his own. Maybe they’ll all come and visit, on holidays and every day, sampling goods from Mom’s kitchen. He’ll always know we’ll be delighted for his visits, which will be a testament to our continued good luck.

My boy. When he’s a man, he’ll wear no antlers, no crown. But he will always be my prince.

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My 3 little princes. From left to right: Adam, Chaz, AJ

Look for Blue Sky

Back in November, too early for holiday gifts, a package arrived containing a book: Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver. No note included. I thought my mom — a Kingsolver fan — may have ordered it, but no. Was it sent by mistake? Nope. My husband uncovered the mystery. “My colleague sent it. He read Boy on Hold and it reminded him of this book by Kingsolver.”

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Stop. the. press. Caught in a moment of greatness, I was speechless. One of my very favorite authors, Kingsolver is a genius at tackling big world issues in an articulate and moving way. Back as a student teacher, I taught Poisonwood Bible — allowing me to study the imperialism of Republic of Congo, while dissecting each conflict and character down to the nub, leaving me scraped raw and vulnerable and brimming with emotions I didn’t realize I had. That book remains one of my favorite books of all time.

To be considered alongside Barbara Kingsolver in any capacity is a huge honor. I mean, *my book* reminded him of one by the great and brilliant BARBARA KINGSOLVER?!?

How it got into the hands of my husband’s colleague is a compliment in itself. Turns out, BOH was recommended to said colleague’s daughter — a psychology student at NYU — by her professor. (Let me say that again.) An NYU psychology professor recommended Boy on Hold to one of his/her students. *pinch me* So, BOH made its rounds in the family, which led to the Kingsolver gift…

Such an overwhelming compliment, it was a bit intimidating to read Unsheltered. But of course, I did. And it certainly held up.

Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver

The book’s logline sets the tone and could very well apply to Marcella Trout in BOH: How could two hardworking people do everything right in life, a woman asks, and end up destitute? 

Alternating time periods between current day and post-Civil War era, Kingsolver layers climate change and environmental issues of today with the evolution controversy of Charles Darwin. Kingsolver’s smart prose certainly made me think. I’m grateful for the introduction to Mary Treat, the 19C biologist “whose work deserves to be better known.” Kingsolver deftly wove in strange but true events such as Treat’s feeding her own fingertip to her Venus flytrap as an experiment. As the story turns more serious, though, it made me appreciate those who take a stand on a large or small scale — even if it comes at great cost with no reward. It also made me rethink the value of “stuff” in general, as also eloquently put in this article my friend pointed out to me today.

All in all, the message rings clear: Rather than fight change and for a life we think we deserve, find creative ways to adapt and be open to happiness that waits for you there.

An Unsheltered excerpt that’s stayed with me:

…when God slams the door on you…you’re going to end up in rubble…you won’t find your way out of the mess if you keep picking up bricks and stuffing them in your pockets. What you have to do is look for blue sky.

A message Marcella Trout should absolutely consider as her world turns upside down and she finds herself “in the rubble” at the end of BOH.

I want to hear from you:
Have you ever had to adapt to a new normal? How did you find blue sky? 

First born, first book

When I started writing Catcher’s Keeper, my oldest was five. He was so little, it never occurred to me that he would ever read it someday. But recently, at age 14, he did. And he loved it.

Reading Catcher's Keeper

Inspired by The Catcher in the Rye, I originally wrote CK for adults — though it’s often paired with Rye in high schools as a YA book (fun fact: Salinger originally wrote Rye for adults too). I may have cleaned CK up a bit if I’d known kids (especially my kids) were going to read it.

I mean, its prose has a toilet mouth. Take the first line:

Not even a week since I moved in with my brother and he’s testing my pacifist nature, butting in on my shit.

And that’s just the first line. (The word ass appears another paragraph down…)

It’s an odd feeling. My son peeled back a layer and saw another side of his mom. One that writes in male voices and curses like a truck driver. Yikes. To say I was relieved that he liked it is an understatement.

Though it was published in 2014, the book has gotten a boost recently. Still a favorite for book clubs, it also resides in several classrooms as a Rye companion. There’s been a slight uptick in sales, which is nice. In November, it was featured on this cool website, Snowflakes in a Blizzard, which highlights and brings awareness to some awesome, lesser-known books.

And hey, the ebook is a bargain at only $2.99!

I’m proud of my first book. But even prouder when I read this from my first born:

I’ve read Catcher in the Rye and I thought it was great. The voice, the conflicts, the hidden messages. But, when I read Catcher’s Keeper, it shed a whole new light on everything. The characters were all so believable as adults, you’d think it was written by JD Salinger himself! That signature Holden Caulfield (now Alden) voice is ever-present, but you experience and feel everyone else in a whole new way. The struggles, the twists, that suspicious MD, and an unforgettable ending makes this book a must-read for anyone who’s read Cather in the Rye. 5 stars. 

Catcher's Keeper book review

Author’s Choice

Recently, I was invited into a classroom to speak about Author’s Choice. They’d been studying the different elements in a novel that require clear decisions by the author, such as setting, character names, structure, voice, etc. Though I’ve taught these things in my own classroom, analyzing classic novels and other texts in the curriculum, this was the first time I thought about my choices as an author. And it gave me pause. It made me think about all the choices I make as I write, consciously or subconsciously, to build a story that people will want to read. See, that last part is key. Your ultimate goal as a novelist, really, is for people to want to read your stuff. That said, the choices an author makes are informed by that goal.

Allegory about climate change

Reading from Concerto on the topic of climate change

Here were some talking points for my classroom visit:

Don’t kill Sophie. (naming characters)

Authors get asked a lot how they choose the names of their characters. I’ve been known to respond, “Whatever’s easy to type!” Truth told, I go with my gut. Some names come easily and some have fits and starts before being finalized. But here’s the Sophie story: A friend of mine wrote a book in which a secondary character (named Sophie) was killed off toward the end. It had to be done for the story, which is usually fine. However, since she wrote the book, she was haunted by her choice. She met several people with the same name—lovely people. New friends, new colleagues, children, pets, and the list goes on… It’s worth noting, though, that she was haunted not because she killed off a character, but because she named her Sophie.

Bitch voice. (voice/POV)

The third book in the Forte series is told by a minor character’s POV, and tells her story. As the first two books, this is also written in first person (which feels more YA to me than third person). But I was so concerned that the voice be different, I opted for an edgy tone I thought might be cool. Turns out, a hundred pages in, the edgy voice I was hoping for sounded downright bitchy. I thought, “No one is going to want to read anything this bitch has to say!” So, I threw out the 100 pages (and the next 100) until something clicked. What clicked? The backstory. I wrote a backstory for the character that no one will ever see but made me feel sympathy for her, which in turn will make readers feel sympathy for her. Here’s hoping!

I have a Nevus spilus. (genre)

As I embarked on writing a book that included magic, it needed to be relevant to me. Many authors don’t have this problem and can build make-believe worlds with nothing but their imaginations. I don’t have that kind of confidence. I feel like people wouldn’t buy it. For that reason, a lot of my magic stems from Greek mythology, which I taught for years and feel well-versed in. Also, my main character’s magic is triggered by her birthmark on her hand, a constellation of freckles in a condensed circular pattern. When I was little, people sometimes thought the Nevus spilus on my hand was dirt. Now that I’m older, some people think it’s a severe case of “age spots.” Ho-hum. I’d rather think it’s magical.

Dead whales. (author’s message/theme)

Have you seen the viral video of that washed up dead whale *full* of plastic? It had ingested so many plastic bags that were floating in the ocean, its stomach was literally full of them. And how ’bout them polar bears? With their habitat melting away, the problem seems insurmountable.

Climate change. Global warming. Beyond these buzz words in the political arena, when I think about the kind of environmental problems we are passing on to the next generation, my mama-tiger claws come out. But then, despair hits. What can I, a writer, possibly do?

Write a book that’s an allegory for battling climate change. The result? Concerto, book 2 of the Forte series.

English teachers want to torture us. (structure/word choice/literary devices)

This pretty much sums it all up, doesn’t it? When I taught high school English, one of my students interrupted our lesson on literary devices to say, “I don’t think authors mean to write that way, with all the metaphors and similes and stuff. I think it’s just the English teachers who find stuff in books so they can make us learn it.” Hmmm. I have to say, I didn’t like what she said. It rumpled my feathers, for sure. But now that I’m a published author, I know for a fact that word choice and  use of literary devices are absolutely intentional. Why? We need to find a creative way to say something without being cliché or simply listing what’s happening. Making the readers feel what the characters feel. Putting the reader inside the story. That’s what will make people want to read your book. And be touched by it. And recommend it to all their friends.

And that, at the end of the day, is what we writers really want. Isn’t it?

         

Apple falls up

A talented writer in his own right, my oldest son AJ has been named Student of the Quarter twice in a row for WRITING. Last year in fifth grade, he wrote a short fantasy story for school that blew me away. The title is “Eugallado” and, after begging him to allow me to share it, I’m thrilled to post a sneak peek at the opening:

Eugallado. Chapter 1. The Cave.

It was a day like any other when the secret world was discovered by two ordinary boys.
The trees and the ground were covered in prestigious, sparkling white snow, and the sun made everything shine so bright it was almost hard to look at it. We gazed at the beautiful trees, sprinkled with glistening sugar-white powder, longing to explore the woods. My mom said we could never go in, but she wouldn’t tell us why. Of course we wanted to find out.
“Let’s go,” my best friend Ryan said excitedly . . .

People like to say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree and all that jazz, but I think it’s the opposite. In our case, the apple falls up! And writing is just one of his many talents. I’m so proud of this kid. He inspires me. He’s an inspiration to our whole family.

QMS Student of the Quarter

Excellence Award in Writing

On my school visits, I always tell students that the best way to improve your writing is to READ. Read everything. Always be reading. AJ is proof of that. He’s participated in the Battle of the Books program at school since third grade. He’s usually got at least 2 or 3 books going at one time. He reads books he likes, and books he dislikes. And maybe it’s his youth, but he seems to remember EVERYTHING!

I’m honored AJ is such a fan of my books! He read Forte twice — and after reading the first draft of its sequel, he gave me feedback that will be cherished forever: “I loved your book so much! I loved the description, and I felt like I could really feel the characters. I loved the combonation of music, magic, and mythology. Definetly one of the best books I’ve ever read! – AJ <3”

YA magical realism Concerto

AJ almost done with Concerto

When Concerto was published several months after he read the first draft, he was eager to read it again (gotta love this kid). Now 12 and dealing with middle school antics and LOTS of sixth grade homework, he found the time to read my book. It was my gift to see him peek out with a smile from behind my book as I tucked him into bed. As soon as he finished, he wrote a review on Google docs and shared it with me.

*Warning: contains spoilers!* (But too precious not to share!)

Concerto Review By AJ Spero

Mom, I thought your book Concerto was absolutely amazing! And I’m not saying that just because you’re my mom. If I went to Barnes & Noble and bought your book and read it, I’d say, “WOW! This book is so cool!!” First thing: I thought the characters were awesome! They were so real, I felt like I could really feel and connect with the characters. I also really liked how there was some suspense that made you ask questions that really kept you turning the pages! I always wanted to see what happened next. And the drama between the characters was really good! I felt like it was emotional but not over-the-top, you know? For instance, When Sami started to date Miles, I was like, “No! What about Jason?” Then when she went to visit Jason, I could really feel the awkwardness. I was cringing myself! Then when Jason gave Sami a pat on the back, oh man. Total cringe fest. Then at the end, I loved how they finally started to get back together again. I didn’t really like how they broke up in the first draft, though, it was even painful for me! I know I have a big, long, rambling list of all the things I loved about your book, so I’ll wrap it up with one more thing. I loved the sneak peak chapter of “Cadence”! I want to read it so bad now! I love how you see the other side of that conversation Lauren and Sami had. Sami seemed so oblivious! I also like Lauren’s fun personality, and I can’t wait to find out more about Lauren. I felt like, in “Forte,” I couldn’t really connect with Lauren as a person, but I like how I’ll find out her side of things. Overall, I thought your book was SO GOOD and I can’t wait ‘till “Cadence” comes out! 

 

Insomnia

It hits me off and on. At least once a week. This morning, I awoke at 3 AM, thought about going back to sleep for about one minute, then bounded out of bed with a surge of adrenaline. Why? Because I’m approaching the finish line to launch my upcoming release CRESCENDO, the sequel to Forte. Up and at ’em to work on content edits to send to Xchyler Publishing by 6 AM. I rock.

But not every 3 AM bout of insomnia is that happy or productive. Most times, my mind plays cruel tricks on me and I’m sick with worry about anything and everything. Sometimes, I go completely Macbeth and feel like I’m losing my mind altogether. It happened this past summer and I wrote the following passage in my journal — bleary and exhausted, messy and scribbling in all directions. It’s raw and unedited and, hopefully, strikes a chord.


Can’t sleep
Worrying about cars and dogs
Regret tugs — losing my patience
I want to be happy
It should be easy
Why am I so anxious?
Lots to do, wasted Sunday
Summer’s too short. Why was I so eager to fill it?
Hopes smack against fears
Spider crawling down the wall
Haven’t written in awhile
Does this count?
Is it enough to be a mom?
and wife
Hope for yes tempered by guilt
Worry fears losing what we have
Do I love too much?
Why can’t I be kinder? Why do I get so irritated? Why is smiling hard?
Are we missing something?
Is it slipping away?
Am I trying hard enough?
Am I succeeding?
Where did my babies go?
Are the memories safe? Are the moments captured?
Big, fat black ants
too much stuff — for what?
Time slipping too fast
Too busy, not busy enough
my loves keep them safe please
vacuum broke again.
My hair gets everywhere.
My stomach sticks out.
I get angry easily.
I don’t know why he loves me so much.
I’m alive.
Every moment is precious. Why waste it with worry?
Can’t sleep.
Stopped trying.
Tomorrow is here.
I’m not ready.

WDC in NYC

This past weekend, I attended the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference in New York City. Having just launched FORTE, it was not only an opportunity to hone my craft but also to continue the celebration. The best part about it? My brother, Jim Davies, flew in from Ottawa to attend the conference with me.

Jim Davies & JD Spero on the street

Jim & me in Times Sq

We stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn in Bryant Park. Our digs, courtesy of my husband Anthony Spero, held amazing views of both water and Times Square from the 34th floor. The 6:35 am Megabus dropped me a few blocks away, and when I got to the hotel at 10am, I pushed the elevator button for the lobby and…there was Jimmy!

Times Square, NYC

View of Times Square

We dropped our bags, checked the map, and headed toward the Roosevelt Hotel for the conference check-in. My sleep deprivation got the best of me, but my misguided confidence convinced Jimmy I knew where I was going. Our hour-long detour didn’t deter our fun — and got us some cool photo opportunities and a yummy lunch.

Kinky Boots

Jimmy in some Kinky Boots!

We made it in time for registration and the first session, Pitch Perfect by Chuck Sambuchino (nothing to do with the movie but everything to do with pitching literary agents). And so it began…

WDC15 name tag

WDC15 name tag

Some gems from the workshops:

Don’t pigeon-hole yourself! WRITE EVERYTHING! – Jonathan Maberry (Keynote)

Take off your pants and write using the hybrid approach of “plantsing” – Jeff Somers

It’s the small things that break your heart. – Rebecca McClanahan on Word Painting

Writing is both mirrors and windows. – Jacqueline Woodson (central keynote)

Slip the pill in the liverwurst. – Jon McGoran on Exposition & Economy


In addition to the workshops, I attended the Pitch Slam — where I pitched my latest book to 8 or 9 literary agents and came away with lots of genuine interest. Hooray!

We met lots of other writers, including a fellow Xchyler Publishing author! It was a miracle we found each other. There were 1000 people at the conference, who all squeezed into the lobby area for the mixer. I felt like I was back at college at a keg party.

JD Spero and Jamie Potter

Me and Jamie Potter at Saturday’s mixer.

Jimmy and I write in somewhat different genres, so at times we attended different talks throughout the conference. Years ago, Anthony and I attended a Forensics League competition which was being judged by my one-in-a-million grandmother — Grandma Honey. Being newlyweds, we were hesitant to leave each other’s sides, no less let go of each other’s hands. But Grandma Honey insisted, “You need to split up, go experience different things, so that when you come back together you have lots to talk about. And you end up with twice the fun!”

I shared this wisdom with Jimmy, who agreed. So we coined a new term (which wouldn’t fly on the Scrabble board, but would sure make Honey smile): Splitskis!

It became our mantra and moniker. At times, we’d have to find each other among the sea of writers passing in the halls between sessions. I could be heard calling above the crowd: Splitskis!

“Which session do you want to go to next? All right, I want to go to this one. Okay, Splitskis!”

My favorite sessions were those we attended together, however. And I benefitted as much from our whispered side commentary as I did from the speaker’s. It’s way cool my brother and I have this writing thing in common. I’m pretty sure we were the only brother/sister team there. What’s more rare is the heartfelt support and encouragement we give each other — without a smidge of competition.

WDC15 mixer

At networking mixer Saturday night

I can honestly say that — by far — the best part about the conference was spending quality time with my bro. Our final Splitskis was a melancholy one.

 

 

 

It takes a village

My children will probably never have a traditional upbringing: growing up in the same house, markers of their growth lining the closet door, surrounded by familiar neighborhood kids, rooting for the same alma mater kinder to senior. Our first two boys were born in Massachusetts. Our littlest, in Indiana. We called Texas home for two years and are now living in upstate New York. More than likely, we’ll be moving again in the near future. Are we giving them an unstable home life or character-shaping adventures?

When I was fifteen, my parents moved me from my childhood home. I was so devastated, I wouldn’t help Mom pack. Not even my bedroom. And I wasn’t even changing schools. My grief turned to gratitude soon after we settled into our beautiful lake home. Years later, my parents moved again. This time, I wasn’t living at home but at college. Still, it was bittersweet. But when a friend made the comment that it must be hard to leave our lake home, my brother replied: “Home isn’t a place. It’s where your family is.”

Today, my family of five shares a home with my parents who live there part-time, half the year. It’s not a fancy house, nor is it lakeside. But, right now, it’s home. We share this house not due to financial strain or mid-life crises, but because it makes sense for us. Not only does it make sense, it’s been an absolute blessing. My children are growing up directly alongside one set of grandparents, and just a day-trip away from their cousins and another set of grandparents. They are surrounded by family. They are surrounded by love. This is obvious. The less obvious benefits have been revealed over time.

They say it takes a village to raise a child. My boys’ lives have become so rich in experiences, moving and traveling across the country. And now, living with my parents, their lives are enriched in another way. My mother brought them to the theater when I feared they might disrupt the onstage drama. My father talks physics and math-y stuff with my oldest while I’m allergic to numbers. My brother — who lives within driving distance — has introduced role-playing games to all the boys, gets them to make their own board games, and creates art with them. These are minor examples. The list goes on…

Our other “home” is at the beach, where my boys learn from their Nunu about ocean safety and how to be neighborly. They talk about books with their grammy and are lovingly folded into the glorious chaos of their cousins’ home as if they were more-the-merrier siblings within the eight-person-family.

No, my boys won’t have the traditional one-home-forever upbringing. But what they have is pretty great. Maybe better. Our boys will grow to be better, smarter, stronger, happier, and more confident — because they have a vast collection of love and experiences shaping who they are.

The end result is always better when you have a team behind you. Isn’t it?

Like with, say, BOOKS!

Last night at a book club discussion, I was asked the question: “How is it different working with a publisher versus self-publishing?” I get this question a lot.

When I self-published Catcher’s Keeper, I agonized over my story in solitude. Sure, I hired a myriad of editors, a cover designer, a formatter. I enlisted the help of many an author friend. I networked online and at writing conferences. I had a huge amount of support from family and friends. I certainly wasn’t alone, per se. But when it came down to it, it was up to me and me only to make it great. To make it flawless. Was it ready to be published when I finally uploaded it and — egads — people started ordering it? Was it as good as it could be? Aghhh! I hope so.

When I signed with Xchyer Publishing for FORTE, I couldn’t appreciate the expertise they would bring. I was hesitant. I’d been through the process. I’d learned so much. I’d self-published successfully and my attitude was: “What could you do for me that I couldn’t do myself?”

Well, let me tell you. I humbly stand corrected.

My team at Xchyler Publishing (my X-team) has scrutinized every single word of each line, each chapter. I had a team of five talented individuals who had a vested interest in making my manuscript the best it could possibly be, which sometimes meant rewriting scenes multiple times, writing lengthy character sketches and/or timelines that would never be included directly in the story, and examining dialogue and relationships to convey realistic characters. I was far from alone. Not only that, I was boosted up.

Granted, there were times when I’d see track-changes comment from my editor: “Not enough. Falls flat. Needs more tension.” I’d grunt at my screen in frustration, go through a short-lived cycle of denial/anger before coming to accept it and rework the scene. At times it would take hours. At times I’d have to throw the whole thing out and start anew. At times I had to add entire chapters to show what I thought was already pretty clear. In the end, the scene was always better.

Not only that, but we worked together to come up with a new title, a stunning cover, and a marketing plan. And, to my utmost delight, they took care of the critical and notoriously hard-to-write back-cover blurb. (I’d rather write an entire book than a back-cover blurb!)

LOCK 12 - original cover

Original cover and former title of FORTE

Forte_Bookcover_front

New FORTE cover design from Xchyler Publishing

 

Just yesterday, I sent what I was told had to be “absolutely the last go-around” version, and I’m thrilled with it. I have to say, the end result is so worth the effort. It’s so much better than it had been when I thought it was done. Frankly, I cringe to think of publishing the book without their input.

My “baby” launches July 25, 2015. It takes a village to launch a book. So many people have made FORTE rich in so many ways — I’m brimming with gratitude.   The best part? My boys can’t wait to read it. And the adventures continue…

Case of the Stolen Manuscript

Over a year ago, I read an article in Vanity Fair magazine about how Harper Lee has been royally screwed (my words) out of her fair share of royalties for To Kill a Mockingbird, the beloved, world-famous American Literature classic. The article is worth reading in its entirety, and it implies that her experience was so negative that it prevented her from wanting to publish anything else. When directly asked, she reportedly replied: “Because I wouldn’t go through all the terrible publicity and the strain of what happened with Mockingbird for any amount of money.”

As an author, a teacher, and fan of TKAM, it was a pretty disturbing read. Those feelings are swirling back as I read article after article about a manuscript that was written by Harper Lee eons ago and has been miraculously uncovered and submitted to HarperCollins by a London-based agent. There’s much speculation as to whether or not Harper Lee—at 88 and in extremely fragile health ever since her stroke in 2007—is even aware that her work has been sold and published now that her lawyer and sister, Alice Lee, (known as Harper Lee’s “protector”) has passed away. Regardless as to whether or not “Go Set a Watchman” will satisfy fans of TKAM, it undoubtedly will sell millions. The entire literary world questions whether Harper Lee wants this book out there at all…and whether or not she’ll reap any monetary reward from its sales. The Wall Street Journal recently reported how “Watchman” was presented to HarperCollins, the process suspiciously without author involvement. There is no evidence that Harper Lee does not want “Watchman” published. Agent and publisher claim she is “delighted” that the manuscript has been found after all these years, although where exactly it was found is still a mystery. *(Update: one of my former students sent me this link, which includes a very odd interview with Harper Lee’s editor. Worth a read.)

It’s just too delicious not to speculate…what if this manuscript is being published behind her back? What if it’s been “stolen” from Lee—and is a precursor to more stolen royalties?

How much should author interests be respected here? The literary world is also eager to read uncovered manuscripts of JD Salinger, as outed in the documentary “Salinger” by Mr. Shane Salerno. Did Salinger ever want these manuscripts published? If so, wouldn’t they already be out in the world? Are we so eager to hear from the famously reclusive author that we no longer care? Or, on a more morbid note, now that he’s dead, is it all fair game? (This Buzzfeed article discusses this ‘author intent’ issue. Some of the authors included might surprise you.)

My mom pointed out the similarities between the WSJ article “Harper Lee Bombshell” and the book publication shenanigans in CATCHER’S KEEPER. One of my favorite scenes in my book is when Jerry, during a slump in his screenwriting career, walks into his agent’s office with his brother’s journal under his arm. What happens next is quintessential SNAFU.

This scene—one of my favorites—is rare in that it’s hardly been revised. It’s essentially stayed the same since my very first draft. My writer friends will know how improbable that is! Enjoy…

EXCERPT

“Hey-ya Jerry!” Mitch says over his desk as he hangs up his phone. “Good to see you! Did we have a meeting?” He runs his finger down his planner.

Mitch, my agent, is about ten years my junior and hasn’t got a single strand of grey in his full head of dark brown hair. I used to have hair like that, Janine was always quick to remind me. His shirts—collar always open—are perfectly bleached white, which make his teeth look slightly wan. Other than that, he’s a decent-looking guy, if you’re into Italian types. Some girls go nuts for those dark, intense eyebrows. He’s got an excessive amount of energy, which puts me on edge. But he’s the best in the business and I’m lucky to have him. I just can’t afford to piss him off again.

“No, no,” I say. “I won’t bother you. I know you’re busy. I was hoping to use that spare machine for a while.”

“Yours broken?”

I shake my head. “My brother is staying with me for a bit. He needs to use it. Well, I offered to let him use it.”

Mitch rubs the back of his neck. “Jerry, we reserve that spare for non-local authors who are on deadline. Who have a contract.”

I hear the emphasis. But what can I say? It’s been a tough dry spell since the divorce. And the M*A*S*H fiasco, I don’t even want to think about that. Mitch and I haven’t been the same since.

Mitch weaves around his desk and closes the door. “Hey-ya,” he whispers. “I happen to know it’s available for a couple weeks. You could squat until our next out-of-state author comes in.”

“Really? Wow, Mitch. That is just great—”

“But! Hold on.” He points a hand at me. “You have to work on an approved project. Something I’m going to sell. You can’t just sit and tinker.”

“Tinker? Mitch, you know me. You know how hard I work.”

“Yeah, when it’s your own stuff. You work your ass off on whatever interests you. Someone wants you to make war doctors funny and you get so obtuse, you offend the entire studio!” He waves his arms as if to shoo a school of fruit flies. My skin seems to swell on the spot. Weird how shame makes you feel huge when you want to shrink away. Thank goodness the door’s closed.

“I can’t apologize enough for that,” I say to the floor.

“Nah, forget it. Onward and upward. Whatcha got?” He settles back into his chair and taps his fingers on his desk protector, eyeing Alden’s binder in my hands.

My stomach drops. I forgot I was still holding it. “Oh, this? This is nothing. I mean it’s something, but—”

It’s out of my grip and open on his desk before I can object. As Mitch reads, I start to hyperventilate.

Shit!

I tell a half-truth. “Mitch, I have this amazing idea for a screenplay. I’m sure it will sell on the big screen. Maybe we could get Jackie Earle Haley to play the lead—”

Mitch shuts me up with a wave of his hand. I force myself to sit as sweat collects beneath my shirt collar. Mitch’s eyes are moving at lightning-agent speed over Alden’s binder, but his expression is blank.

He flips to a random page in the middle and reads on. Outside his office door, Nancy the secretary looks in, her eyes question marks. When I go to open the door for her, she retreats, vehemently shaking her head. Please interrupt, I want to say. But she knows better, especially when Mitch is reading something.

He flips to the end and reads back a few pages. I strain to see. I didn’t even get that far. Shit. Poor Alden. I’m so sorry, brother. I’m silently chanting this apology until my tongue goes dry. Maybe I’ll sneak out to the bubbler.

“You son of a bitch,” Mitch says.

My jaw drops. “Excuse me?”

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! So this is what you’ve been doing? This is what you’ve been hiding from me?”

“Well, no. Not exactly, see. This is a journal—”

“I know! I can tell! The point of view is extraordinary. A kid. A spoiled brat of a kid with a quirky way of talking. He’s funny, this kid. Got an interesting voice. You have a few inconsistencies, I see already, but it might work considering it’s written from a kid’s perspective. Yes, it just might work.” He sucks on the end of his pen, his eyes on the ceiling. “We have to think of a good title. But that will come. How soon can you get this typed up?” He gets up, starts pacing.

My mouth is agape. I should interrupt him, but nothing comes out. It’s been so long since he’s been excited about something from me—

He claps his hands, giving me a start. “Get the first thirty pages to me by the end of the day and I’ll start working on a pitch. We’ll send it out tomorrow to Tracy at Little, Brown.” He slaps me on the back. “Hell, yeah! You’re back, Jerry. I knew you could do it.”

He slides back into his chair and starts typing, his lips pursed and eyes narrowing.

I clear my throat. There’s got to be a way to save this. “Mitch? I was planning on converting it to a screenplay. And I’m not tied to the names. I was planning on changing them.” Jesus, at the very least I have to change the names.

He stops typing—he does not like being interrupted—and glares at me. “Wha? What are you saying? Screenplay? No, that won’t work at all. You’ll lose the voice, which is the best part.”

“Yes, but with a narrator—”

“Fuck, no. Please. What you have here is going to work. Don’t mess with it. Do what you want with the names. I see you worked your own name in there. A little autobiography in every piece is expected. The title, that’s what’s important now.”

“But—”

Mitch cuts the air like an umpire. “No screenplay. Change names. Find a good title. Got it?”

He starts typing again, bobbing his head with the rhythm of it. I feel like I might throw up. He finally likes something I’ve got—wants to sell it—and it’s not mine. What the hell am I going to do?

I start to back out of the office. “Hey-ya, don’t forget your binder, Jerry.” Mitch hands it over with his signature wink. “That’s gold right there.”

Where are they now?

“Children’s lives are fiendishly hard. Adults, having survived childhood, turn their minds to the future, and if they have a choice, generally retain only the rosiest of childhood memories.” ― Gregory Maguire, author of Wicked

You know those irresistible sites that show you how child celebrities look now as grown ups? That’s kind of what I’ve done with Catcher’s Keeper, yet focusing on voice rather than appearance. It was the subject of my recent talk at the Chronicle Book Fair yesterday.

The Catcher in the Rye perfectly captures a voice of the quintessential troubled American teen, whose problems seem so insurmountable there is no option but to run away. This famous, coming-of-age story captures a tenuous time in a young person’s life in a realistic voice that is—ironically—honest as well as unreliable, as most teens tend to be. Having taught high school (and remembering what it was like to be a teen), I know first-hand the phenomenon of the adult/child that is the teen. They may look like adults, but they are children. They still need clear boundaries. They need clear explanations on right versus wrong. Unable to foresee consequences for their inevitable misguided actions, they need leadership. They need unconditional love. They need forgiveness. They are confused and fragile while trying to figure out exactly who the heck they are and what role they could possibly play in the world and society, facing huge life choices (college, career, etc). At the same time discerning peer pressure, as well as juggling homework and hormones and activities and work and, now, social media…

Can you think of a better embodiment of “the teen” other than Holden Caulfield?

What would this teen be like as a grown up? How would you hear his voice?

In order to answer these questions, you have to first answer: What happened to him from the time we met him as a privileged, anti-war, anti-phony 16 y/o in the 1950s to the time of Lennon’s death in 1980?

My answer?

He was a hippie, of course. A draft-dodger. And as a 40 y/o in 1979, he’s emerging from his drug-induced, carefree lifestyle funded by the family trust. He’s trying to get his life together, but he still struggles with the loss of his baby brother, Allie (a huge theme in The Catcher in the Rye), and (in recent years) the loss of his mother. Here’s my version of him, coming home to his big brother’s pad where he’s crashing a while. (Character list is as follows, Jerry: big brother, Janine: Jerry’s ex, Fiona: little sister, Allie: deceased little brother)

 EXCERPT

Lucky me. Jerry’s gone when I get in. I shuck off my kicks and watch a little news. But then I get sucked into this true story of a football player who battled cancer and won, and then came back out to play before all his hair grew in again. And he was better than ever. Coach said he played with more heart. They made this big deal about his hair growing in different. Curly. They say that it sometimes happens with cancer survivors. The story just about kills me. I mean, I have to wipe tears off my goddam cheeks. The heavy background music doesn’t help. Geez, they really know how to tug at your heartstrings. I get that this is a totally awesome outcome for this guy, but all I can do is think of Allie, whether his hair would’ve grown in different. If it had a chance to.

I click off the boob tube and decide to take a shower. Sometimes I think better under a rush of hot water. I can’t get Allie’s hair out of my mind, though, which makes me think of Fiona’s hair when she was a kid. I’m still dripping from the shower when I search the closet in Jerry’s spare room for an old photo album so I can see it—the color. Just the brightest, most far-out red. Neither one of them loved it. Fiona knows how to work hers now, though. Besides it’s changed, like it’s matured along with her. Now it’s this dark auburn shade other chicks go bananas for.

I find a thick forest-green album of Jerry and Janine’s vacation to Aruba or somewhere beachy. One photo catches my eye. Jerry’s beaming at the camera, just beaming, and Janine has her hand near his face, her fingers curled around his ear. And she’s looking at him with this half smile, like she’s thinking of something else. I can’t stop looking at this pic, see, because it seems to explain why they called it quits. I’m sure to you they would look like a sweet, happy couple. But I can see it in her eyes; she’s not totally there with Jerry. She’s already halfway gone.

I slam the book away and dress in haste. Suddenly it’s way too quiet in the apartment. I turn on Sgt. Pepper. Loud. Good ol’ “Penny Lane.” I sing along at the top of my lungs. Boo-yah! I sit down at the machine, the tunes full tilt, and start typing with my pointers. I’m totally fast now. Just cruising. I crank out two chapters lickety-split. I decide to stretch my legs and print out what I have so far.

The sound of the printing is driving me crazy, so I venture out to see if Jerry’s got any Coke. Something tells me I drank his last. And I’m right.


Some readers have criticized Alden’s voice claiming it is too immature for a forty year old man. However, at 41, I know from personal experience that some forty-somethings still act like children. (Heck, some fifty-somethings still act like children.) With affection, my inspiration for Alden’s childlike character was inspired by one of my childhood friends who is now a grown man with a free spirit, a liberal use of jargon, and an enormous propensity for fun. Perhaps Alden’s use of slang seems unrealistic to some, yet if you consider who he was (Salinger’s Holden) and what he would have lived through (death of sibling, failure at school…and then Vietnam, hippie 60s), perhaps his mannerisms are not that unrealistic. Taking poetic license as an author, it was also a clear way to distinguish his voice from his brother’s, which was a concern of mine.

For Catcher’s Keeper, getting voice right was crucial. If my readers did not believe in my characters, they would never believe what happens when they do finally meet Mark David Chapman—who appears as an overzealous fan who shows up on the book tour.

What do you think—will my characters succeed? If Holden Caulfield were a real person, would he be able to save Lennon? You’ll just have to read the book to find out!