I CliffsNoted My Way Through H.S. Lit & All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt

Confession: Hi. I’m Sarah. I write novels for teens. And I’ve never read the classics.

Catcher in the RyeLast weekend, my friend Courtney and I got to chatting about classic lit, and while she won two prestigious high school reading awards for tackling such tomes as War and Peace on her own time, I could only recall a pathetic handful of titles from my teen years.

Vexing! As a young adult author, I’m all about books for teens. Why couldn’t I discuss my high school literary experience beyond V.C. Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic? The question sent me on an unexpected weekend trip into the deep dark recesses (emphasis on dark) (emphasis on recess) of adolescence.

My Literary Childhood: An Incomplete History

My grammar school years were bookishly bountiful. Taught myself to read after a few lessons in pre-school. Wrote and illustrated my first book (inspired by and/or ripped off from the movie E.T.) in first grade, complete with such witty dialogue as “Burp! Hiccup!”

E.T. by Sarah Ockler

Spiderman at PARP CeremonyWon the second grade PARP (Parents as Reading Partners) award for most books read at home, the ceremony for which included a visit from Spiderman.

By fifth grade, long after I’d burned through Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, and all the Sweet Valley High books, I was sneaking adult romance novels from the library and hiding them in a Super Duper grocery bag under my bed, reading by flashlight after dark, just like my best friends. (Side note: Fifty Shades of Gray infiltrates the mommy bloggers? Please. Fifth grade, baby. We were all over that stuff before we even knew what “that stuff” was.)

Clearly I was on the fast track to literary stardom. So what happened to this once promising pre-pubescent prodigy of the page?

Adolescence: The Wonderless Years

Sarah Ockler, Sophomore with Giant HairI pondered the odd paradox of my teen years, my confusing adolescence fraught with #MiddleClassProblems. Was my Wonder Bread suburban education somehow… inadequate? Were my parents’ tax dollars funneled into non-literary budget items like the industrial pool cleaner that ensured second-degree chemical burns upon each reluctant gym class dip? Or the carefully preserved grasshoppers for bio class, the smell of which still haunts my memory and prevents me from eating heavily-soy-sauced cuisine? Certainly it wasn’t the deep fried erasers casually passed off as French fries in the cafeteria. Why, then, after rising before five a.m. every day to be ferried off by the magic bus and deposited into a series of fiberglass desks for four years of my life, was I not exposed to more classic literature?

If my hair could reach record-breaking new heights each year, why not my mind?

Could this hole in my academic experienced be correlated with my over-reliance on adverbs, italics, and emoticons in my adult communications?

More importantly, did this educational oversight contribute to my growing up to write banned books in a super-secret evil plan to infiltrate and pollute young, impressionable minds?

All The Crazy Kids Love Twenty Boy Summer

Stephen King was my Charles Dickens, Mary Higgins Clark my Virginia Woolf. My wisdom and guidance came from “One to Grow On” commericial intermissions during Saturday morning cartoons.

How could this have happened?

*Ponders in an uncharacteristically studious manner*

Sweet, unreliable memory! Dusty recollections of yesteryear! Suddenly, the elusive answer rose like a brilliant phoenix of obviousness from the ashes of numbskullery!

I didn’t do my homework!

I had this uncanny ability to b.s. my way through class by anticipating the desired direction of the discussions and turning the teachers’ questions into the very answers they wanted to hear (tip: strategy somewhat less effective with parents). I could also zone out while subconsciously absorbing enough material to answer any question thrown at me as if I’d been paying attention all along.

Impressive, yes. If only I could use my powers for good instead of evil!

Unfortunately, my highly developed powers of persuasion were no help with tests. Enter CliffsNotes, my pre-smart phone, pre-Google guardian angels! These black-and-yellow booklets told me everything I needed to know about Hester Prynne and Tom Sawyer. Themes! Author bios! More themes! Ah, CliffsNotes. Able to save even the laziest butts from detention and failure in a single bound!

Right. It’s a wonder they let me graduate. Especially with that hair. Apparently my lack of reading enthusiasm extended to all ares of life, because those yellow-orange tones prove that I did not follow the fine-print directions on the Sun-In bottle!

Sarah's graduation

True Confessions: A Catalogue of Lost Classics

Back then, I was young and impressionable and angry in that nobody-understands-me sort of way. And now I’m… older. So I’ll give you some concrete examples, but please… no judgments!

Part 1: Classics I Willingly Read for Class and Still Remember

  1. Catcher in the Rye
  2. Of Mice and Men
  3. Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl
  4. A Separate Peace
  5. Lord of the Flies

Part 2: Classics I Unapologetically CliffsNoted (And Now That I’m Confessing, I’ll Probably Have That Recurring Nightmare Where The Principal Tracks Me Down And Tells Me I Didn’t Actually Graduate)

  1. The Scarlet Letter: I recently re-read these CliffsNotes for help with Scarlet Letter references in my latest YA novel, Bittersweet.
  2. The Old Man and the… wait, what? I’m sorry, I must’ve nodded off just thinking about this book again.
  3. To Kill A Mockingbird: I think I would’ve enjoyed this one, so I must’ve been in a mood at school that month/year/decade.
  4. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: Something about painting a fence? Or maybe painting a raft? A raft made out of a fence?
  5. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Maybe this was the one with the raft? I could never get past the fact that it reminded me of Strawberry Shortcake’s boy toy Huckleberry Pie. Unfortunately Twain’s book didn’t smell like chemically enhanced fruit. Talk about a missed marketing opportunity, publishers!
  6. The Canterbury Tales: Too many POV characters, dude!
  7. Anything by Shakespeare: Ye head doth hurts! Unfortunately, this movie wouldn’t be out for a few more years. Leo could’ve changed everything for me:

  1. Heart of Darkness: I have Brain of Darkness when it comes to remembering anything about this one.
  2. The Red Badge of Courage: Um, is this a euphemism? Sounds like it should be in Urban Dictionary or a George Carlin skit.
  3. Great Expectations: Honestly this one may have been Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I don’t know. I just remember it had Great in the title, but obviously I didn’t think it was. Great, I mean.
  4. Walden: probably I would totally love this one now.
  5. Our Town: Yeah, I got nothin’.
  6. The Glass Menagerie: There were little glass animal statues, right? Pretty sure I missed most of the symbolism here.

Part 3: Classics I Read on My Own (But With Admittedly Questionable Motives and/or Non-Educational Prodding)

  1. A Handmaid’s Tale: Read after watching the movie at my friend Danielle’s house and getting all swoony over Aidan Quinn.
  2. The Outsiders: Pretty sure Patrick Swayze’s penultimate badassery had something to do with this one.
  3. Some Such Collection by Edgar Allan Poe Whose Title I No Longer Recall: Read after my super-secret crush gushed about it and I feigned fascination in that oh-tell-me-more way and he loaned me his copy and I read it twice just in case he wanted to talk about it over pizza and cokes after school, followed by kissing. Then he approached me one day, all sweet and shy and big blue eyes, and looked at me longingly, and leaned in close to whisper the phrase I’d been dreaming of… “Um, so, can I get my book back?” Sigh.
  4. Slaughterhouse Five: Read last year after it was banned with Twenty Boy Summer from a high school library in Republic, MO. My first Vonnegut book was actually a gift from my pre-husband way back in 1999—Galapagos. I wish I’d discovered Vonnegut in high school, but there’s no wrong time for a little KV wisdom in your life.
  5. The Autobiography of Malcolm X: Read after the Rodney King riots because the riots brought race and class issues to the suburbs in a way I’d never seen in my lifetime, and it changed me forever. Truly. I thought if I knew more about why things were so screwed up and how they got that way, I could do something to change them.

“Books are humanity in print.” ― Barbara W. Tuchman

I’ve been thinking about those Rodney King and Malcolm X reading days recently because of the Trayvon Martin case—the talk of riots, the issues of race we can never seem to get past in this country. And it all makes me realize, once again, that books really do have the power to change lives, to open our minds, to bring us closer. Books can connect us on a singular non-racial, non-cultural, non-gender level because the best ones go straight to the heart of our humanity.

But only if we actually, you know, read them.

*Coughs into hand. Casts about for a subject change. Can’t escape fate!*

Teachers of my adolecent literature classes, including but not limited to Mr. Roberts, Mrs. Whalenmeyer, Mrs. Rosati, and others who shall remain nameless because while my love of books finally knows no bounds, my ability to recall stuff with any sense of accuracy before the turn of the millennium knows at least seven bounds, I hereby commit in front of all the great peoples of the internets, most of whom—while I toiled away at mastering the art of sleeping with my eyes open in your classrooms—weren’t even a good idea in their parents’ minds yet, to read—sans CliffsNotes or any other study aid—some (but not all) of those classics at which I once so carelessly scoffed.

All in the name of keeping an open mind, finding human connections, and cashing in on all of the wonderful lovey-dovey stuff of books.

Call For Suggestions

Readers and aforementioned great peoples of the internets, I need your help! From the part 2 list above, which classics would you recommend reading? Which were/are your favorites? What about any that aren’t on the list? What have I been missing out on all these years? Let your voice be heard in the comments, and help me assuage my decades-long ignorance of classic literature!

(Ahem… um… while we’re on the subject of confessions… I didn’t really get a lousy T-shirt from high school. Our class was voted the class with the least amount of school spirit, as evidenced by our non-existent ten year reunion and inability to fundraise for anything more costly than the post-fundraiser pizza party, so frivolous T-shirts highlighting our academic failures were certainly out of the question.)

Game of Thrones & The Case Against Closure in Fiction

Any Game of Thrones fans out there? No spoilers, but… last night’s episode? All I gotta say about that final scene is… damn, girl. Maybe you oughta see a doctor about that!

*Shudders*

We’ll get back to Game of Thrones in a moment (spoiler-free of course). I promise this is all related, tangentially, as most of my thoughts are, and as most of George R.R. Martin’s characters are.

See what I did right there? Tying it all together like that? Yeah, me neither. Anyway, one of my favorite things about writing for teens is that they’re passionate readers, they know how to get in touch with their favorite authors, and they aren’t afraid to ask questions and share their own ideas (that’s more like 3 or 4 favorite things, but like my thoughts and the cast of Martin’s books, they’re all related, so let’s just roll with it).

I love hearing from readers. They ask about whether the cupcakes featured in Bittersweet are real recipes (yes), or whether Twenty Boy Summer’s Zanzibar Bay is a real place (no). They want to know if Fixing Delilah’s Patrick is based on a real person (in part, and I totally married him). They seek writing and publication advice (don’t give up!), or details on how a book becomes a movie (magic spells are definitely involved). But the number one question I get, hands down, is…

Will you write a sequel to Twenty Boy Summer?

Twenty Boy SummerEveryone wants to know what happens next: do certain characters ever meet up again? Do Anna and Frankie go back to California the following summer? Can the girls rebuild their friendship and trust each other again after everything that happened? Can Sam’s family buy a house from Anna’s father in their same neighborhood? Is it possible that Matt’s death was misreported and he’s living on a remote island somewhere totally safe, waiting for Anna to find him? Can Matt come back from the dead like in Pet Sematary or in some kind of secret government experiment?

All of these questions are from actual reader emails, and though some are more serious than others, the root of each is the same: desire for closure.

Closure in Fiction and in Life

We all long for closure in stories, for the mostly happily ever after, for resolutions and answers when we reach THE END. When we get attached to characters, as I am with the people who populate Game of Thrones, we follow them through the journey of the story, and then we want to know how their life turns out after the last page. It’s the mark of a great tale, right? If I’m still thinking about the characters long after that final passage, if I’m wondering how things turn out for them, then I know that a book really affected me. And I’m always honored and humbled to learn that my books have affected other readers in this way—enough that they want to know what happens next in the lives of my characters.

I like happy endings. I like to know that things worked out for my favorite fictional people just as I want things to work out for my favorite real life people.

But real life isn’t like that, is it? We don’t always get to know how things turn out for everyone we’ve ever loved. We don’t always get the final say. We don’t always get any say, because unfortunately, endings are just that—endings. And they’re often abrupt and unpredictable.

Everything—even the best and seemingly most unshakeable things—end.


Elrond is kind of a downer Dad in this scene from the film adaptation of Tolkien’s The Two Towers, warning his daughter (an immortal elf) against holding out for her true love (a man). Elrond obviously missed elf-parenting class the day they taught the critical lesson: when fathers tell their daughters what to do, daughters will do the exact opposite. Still, his words are true. No matter the outcome of Arwen and Aragorn’s story, one day, their relationship will end.

Personally, I’m still bewildered by certain friendships in my life that ended; people I’d naively and hopefully assumed would be there forever simply… weren’t. Maybe they faded away, or maybe I did. Maybe we all changed and no longer recognized one another. Maybe we all had intentional, irrefutable reasons to walk away. I’m not sure, because in most cases, I didn’t get the luxury of closure. It makes me think of missing persons or funerals without a physical body. There’s always some question, some doubt, some stupid hopeless hope that it didn’t really happen that way. That it could still change.

Closure, unfortunately, is not one of life’s guarantees. It’s a luxury, like I said. Never required. Rarely offered. Whether a relationship ends because of death, a breakup, an insurmountable disagreement, a misunderstanding, or as Elrond so eloquently put, the slow decay of time, it’s still an ending. And in the absence of closure, endings usher in uncertainty. Was there something else I could’ve said, something else I could’ve done if only I’d had the chance? One more day, one more conversation, one more hug? It’s not fair, it just… is. Sometimes all we can do is accept it (or go crazy trying to deny it, which I don’t recommend).

Game of Thrones: You’re Killin’ Me, George!

Like Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, the HBO television series based on the fictional series A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin, gets it absolutely right. We’re currently in season two on the show (I haven’t read the books yet because books with tiny fonts and thousands of pages totally intimidated me, but I really want to read them), and pretty much every weekend I want to phone up George and be all, “Oh. My. God! WTF just happened, George? Why do you insist on making me cry, like, every single effing episode? Why do you keep killing and tormenting the characters I adore? How can you put them in those horrible situations? Why aren’t the good guys saving the day? Argh!”

I get seriously mad at the guy, but honestly, he’s a freaking genius and a wonderful writer. He gets the characters in my head, in my heart. He makes me fall in love with them and then he yanks them away or knocks them down without any consideration for my feelings.

Sound familiar?

When was the last time you were given an opportunity to halt or reverse the death of a loved one? Did anyone consult with you before breaking your heart with that breakup? Before evaporating that best friendship you wanted to believe was forever? Before life yanked the rug out from beneath your feet and stomped on your fingers?

On the surface, Game of Thrones—particularly the HBO interpretation—is fraught with intense violence and sex. Honestly, there are a lot of boobs on that show, and sword fights, among other things. But it’s neither the brutal acts nor the nude buffet that most of us relate to; it’s the emotional aftermath. The sudden ends, the confusion, the heartache, the raw unmet desire, the lack of closure. Most of us have never witnessed the brutal decapitation of a loved one, for example, but haven’t we all wished for one more chance, one more day to say the important things? An opportunity to make our case, to fight for it?

How many times have you actually gotten that chance?

Life isn’t fair or logical. Martin understands that. Tolkein did, too, though his story was much less brutal. In both cases, I was hooked. Lord of the Rings lives on for me, long after reading the books and seeing the movies a bazillion times. I still think about the characters, still imagine what their lives are like now. As for Game of Thrones? Every Sunday night leaves me upset and enraged or plain old freaked out, and Martin has created a loyal fan for life—enough to make me get over my issue with small-print adult books, happy endings or not.

Speaking of Happy Endings… What About Them?

All of this isn’t to say that storybook characters (and their loyal fans!) don’t deserve happy endings. Many fictional heroes emerge stronger and wiser after surviving the external challenges of a story. They’ve overcome their great weaknesses, found hidden strengths and allies, and slayed their literal and figurative dragons (especially in young adult stories, where coming of age is a paramount internal theme). Maybe they’ve also discovered the buried treasure, snagged the girl, saved humankind from utter extinction.

Even so, “happy ending” is a misnomer. The end of a story doesn’t mark the end of a character’s life or the lives of all those she impacted along the way. It’s just a happy moment, and life is full of them, just as it’s full of heartache. Neither is forever—they’re just for now. Remember Frodo in The Return of the King, that scene in the harbor? “We set out to save the Shire, Sam. And it has been saved… But not for me.”

Layered with happiness and regret, love and loss, creation and destruction. Like life.

Absolutely beautiful. Like life.

Your Assignment

Writers, take a look at your current project. Are you tying everything up too neatly for your characters? Are you resolving every thread, addressing every possible outcome? Giving your hero everything she’s ever dreamed of, leaving nothing left for her to fight for? To desire? Take another look. See if you can find a few places to leave things undone. Not dropped or forgotten, but uncertain. Unresolved. Life is messy and unfair as often as it’s amazing. Let us feel the whole range of it on the page. Give us something to wonder about later, long after we’ve closed the book.

Always leave room for a sequel—if not on paper, than in your readers’ imaginations.

Readers, how do you feel about closure? Do you like loose ends, the sometimes unfair twists and turns of life, or do you prefer the safety net of happily ever after in your fiction? What are some of your favorite books? Do they tie up all the threads, or leave you wanting more? Share your spoiler-free thoughts in the comments!

April Showers (or, Why I’m Singing ‘Damn It Feels Good to be a Gangsta’)

Blue Bandana

Well, it’s not because I rock a blue bandana like nobody’s business. Even though I kind of do. Especially when I’m all zoned out in my happy place on the trail and severely under-caffeinated whilst trying to control a horse named Jess. Which is, by the way, a totally true story.

Anyway, that’s not why I’m singing that special little anthem. It’s simply because the spring brings good things! Seriously! The sun is fully out now, the trails are littered with fragrant blossoms, animals are coming out of hibernation, and you know something? When you stand out there with your eyes closed and the sun on your face, you realize that despite life’s many challenges and the general stupidity with which we’re bombarded basically every day… it’s still kind of awesome to be alive. Gangsta!

Our flora and fauna friends know that spring is a time for new beginnings. As a writing instructor, I always see a big upsurge in student enrollments and requests for manuscript consultations the first week of April. It’s like everyone stored up all this creative energy through the winter, and now it’s time to go outside and sniff the proverbial (and adverbial) roses and then go home renewed and recharged and ready to knock the cobwebs off that amazing book idea.

Speaking of spring cleaning, I looked back through the dusty blog archives (*cough cough* clearly it’s been a while) and found that when it comes to my own writing (and my own life), I too follow the cool-new-things-in-the-spring thing, and April apparently brings lots of new adventures my way every year:

  • In April 2011, I turned in revisions on Bittersweet.
  • In April 2010, I shut down my Facebook profile, leaving only a simple page and many more hours for creative endeavors in my life! Shutting down an FB profile might not sound like a big deal, but trust me. It was. And I’ve never felt so free! Electronically speaking, I mean.
  • In April 2009, I recorded my first vlog. I was super nervous and gooberesque, and clearly long-winded, but still, it was lots of fun. See?

  • In April 2008, I moved from Colorado back to New York City for a fresh new re-start (and then we ended up in Buffalo, which is what you see in the vlog above, and now we’re back in Colorado, but you know, it’s the journey, not the destination. And April 2008 is when I embarked on the journey. So it totally counts.)
  • In April 2007, I finished my very first novel, Twenty Boy Summer (that is, the book that would eventually become TBS after much professional input and many revisions, but a milestone worth celebrating nevertheless).

This year, April 2012, I have even more exciting news. At the end of March, I completed and submitted my fourth novel (and all you really need to know about it for now is that there’s a super hot motorcycle boy, and he’s even hotter than Michael Carrington of Grease 2 fame, who was and always will be my heart’s original hot motorcycle boy, especially that part where he’s all, “How ’bout that ride?”). Which means I’m now diving headfirst into something totally new and crazy!

New creative projects. Sunshine. Flowers. See? Super gangsta! Something is definitely in the spring air. Or maybe it’s the water. Quite possibly the soil has something to do with it too. And chocolate Easter eggs. Either way, I’m totally excited at the possibilities!

Now tell me: what are you guys excited about this spring? Anyone starting a new creative project? Any new dreams and ideas percolating? And just how awesome does it feel to go out and play in the sun after hibernating all winter? Love!

Just Make the Bed: Overcoming the Problem of Writers’ Resolutions

For writers, the new year often ushers in a barrage of self-imposed writing plans ranging from the hyper-specific (“I’ll write 2000 words a day from 4-6 AM using only a quill and parchment while facing east and burning jasmine incense and sipping Kona coffee pressed with one finger of steamed skim milk…”) to the supremely ill-defined (“Uh, Imma get me a book deal”), all lumped under the banner of New Year’s Resolutions. Cue the trumpets!

Writing-specific resolutions, when realistic and manageable, can be great motivators. But because publication can be such a long and challenging process (for aspiring writers as well as those already published), fraught with uncertainty and disappointment and emo-coasterness, big resolutions can quickly become debilitating.

The moment we show up at the computer (or parchment, if you’re that guy at the party), even before we complete that first scene, our peanut gallery brains start with the running commentary:

Who are you kidding? This is the worst idea ever. No one is going to read it. And even if they do, it doesn’t matter, because you’re never going to finish. And even if you do, how are you going to find an agent or publisher? You’re not good enough to stand out against the competition. And even if you are, what’s the point? It’s not like you’re going to get a good advance or anything. And even if you did, you wouldn’t get another one after that, because your reviews are going to suck and sales are going to suck and you’ll be blacklisted by the publishing cabal and forced to burn all those unsold copies just to stay warm in your little hovel because you stupidly quit your day job thinking you could write when you clearly can’t and now you’ll probably starve…

Our frail human egos are easily crushed, and so we’re all, “yeah, you’re right. I guess I’ll go watch Cupcake Wars and forget about this crazy writing idea.”

I’ve gone toe to toe with the peanut gallery. Like, as recently as last night. And that’s why I don’t like making traditional “resolutions” (unless they involve eating cupcakes). They’re simply too big by nature, with too many opportunities for criticism and defeat. In the face of such mounting challenges, it’s easy to overwhelm ourselves into a state of complete inertia.

Speaking of which…

*Begin long-winded metaphor here*

Just Make the Bed

Shortly after the turn of the millennium (now that makes me sound old!), I was going through a major change, accompanied—as major changes often are—by upheaval, uncertainty, and fear. Everyone around me knew that I wasn’t handling things in a positive way, but I was so busy assuring them (and myself) that things were going “according to plan” that I didn’t realize that A) there was no plan anywhere in sight, and B) even if someone had given me a plan, in triplicate, I would’ve lost all three copies, and C) denial is an addictive and readily available—yet ultimately ineffective—medicine.

Denial only lasts for so long. And when the haze wore off, I finally noticed that everything was a mess, inside and out. Instead of trying to address the issues and do something about them, I saw them all at once as one ginormously insurmountable disaster. I became completely immobilized. I seriously couldn’t even clean my tiny bedroom.

Exhibits A and B:

No, this was not move-in day. This was like, 3 months after move-in day, still untouched. And yes, the stereo has probably been on the entire time because I couldn’t find the plug or reach the buttons. And yes, those are baskets full of… other baskets. What else would they be?

And below, yes, that is part of an un-walled living room in the background. You’d be amazed at what passes for a “2 bedroom apartment” in New York.

Even Curious George, who’d grown quite curious indeed as to the state of things, crawled out of the rubble and passed out on a pillow near the headboard, his hands and feel curled in defeat like so many dead things that probably lurked undetected under that very bed.

I was just one more basket full of basket-filled baskets away from my own episode of Hoarders: Buried Alive. I needed major help. Like a house elf. Or Pet Monster (who was only just my boyfriend then, and who had pretty much no idea what he was signing up for with me, poor little monster). Dobby wasn’t available, so Pet Monster came over in his stead, surveyed the mess, and formulated a Grand Master Plan (not to be confused with his Funkmaster Plan, which can’t really fix a messy bedroom or neglected finances, but does involve some pretty sweet dance moves).

“Just make the bed,” he said. “That’s all you have to do right now.”

My first response came with its usual melodrama: whining and naysaying, thrashing about, a rather unsubtle rolling of the eyes. “But everything is such a mess. I can’t even—”

“Just make the bed.” He repeated it about ten times, never losing patience. By the eleventh time, I think I was full-blown crying. Then Pet Monster, who probably wanted to smack me in the mouth with the stuffed monkey, took my hand and led me over to the bed to start the process (one of us more grudgingly than the other, not naming names, but her initials are ME). Together, we cleared off the mess, tightened up the sheets, tucked everything in, smoothed out the comforter, and neatly arranged the pillows and poor Curious George, who got a good dusting and some CPR and still looked a bit weary from his ordeal.

We took a step back. The bed was made. It looked nice. Homey. My heart warmed a little (not enough to inspire me to take a picture of the clean version of things. I mean, the internet barely existed back then, and I had a… are you ready for this? A film camera! Clearly I didn’t foresee needing so much photographic evidence to help me carry this giant-stretch-of-a-metaphor ten years later). Suddenly, after completing that one little task, the insurmountable mess didn’t seem so daunting. I relaxed. Took a few deep breaths. Stopped complaining (out loud, anyway).

Then Pet Monster said, “Now all we have to do is unpack that one box. That’s it. One box.” Thirty boxes is impossible, but one box isn’t, I reasoned. I could handle it. After all, I’d just made the bed—a feat only moments earlier I didn’t think I could achieve. So we unpacked the one box, putting everything in its right place. And then tackled another box. And another. Then I folded laundry. Arranged my bookshelves. Dusted. Swept. Filed files. And eventually, what was once an uninhabitable disaster area transformed into a bedroom again.

Not too long after that, I started putting the rest of my life back together, too, one manageable step at a time. Pet Monster stood by my side through it all, reminding me to “just make the bed” whenever I started getting myself all worked up and overwhelmed, and eventually he married me, despite my tendency toward melodrama and my inability to properly clean my room and my special obsession with long-winded metaphoric blog posts. But neither of us ever forgot that day, that one seemingly small moment that became such a turning point in my life—something I would grow to look back on in the face of any challenge: writing, publishing, or otherwise.

One Writers’ Resolution To Rule Them All: Make the Freaking Bed

The journey to publication (and what comes after) is long and fraught with many stresses. Depending on how far we want to push this messy bedroom metaphor thing, one could say the path is littered with half-unpacked boxes, mateless socks, baskets upon baskets of yet more baskets, rabid dust bunnies and the confused stuffed monkeys desperate to escape them… (I think authors are the monkeys in this scenario, and Goodreads has some connection to the baskets, but beyond that, it kind of breaks down into something much less discernible…)

The point is, it’s easy to get overwhelmed, to fret about the what-ifs of what may or may not lie ahead and to give up—sometimes before we’ve finished our first novels or even the first chapters. But of all the crazy ups and downs, book trends and new formats, publishing industry turnover, blog posts and articles and Tweets lamenting the end of reading as we know it, confusing or infuriating reviews, competition for agents and shelf space, celebrity book deals, only one thing is certain in this business: You can do your best work and still, you might not find an agent / get published / create an ebook / become a best seller / insert your big writing resolution dream thingy here. But if you don’t write that first sentence, if you don’t finish that book, you definitely won’t ever find an agent or achieve any of those other dreams.

As you face the challenges of a new year, whenever you sit down to type that first sentence, or that last sentence on your work-in-progress, or that query letter, or that proposal, or that marketing plan, remember: In that moment, that’s your bed. And making it is all you need to worry about. You’re writing one sentence or one scene, not a book. You’re writing a query letter, not obsessing about whether you’ll ever find an agent or a publisher. You’re brainstorming a new idea, not making yourself sick over how the best seller lists work or who got a movie deal or how many one- or five-star reviews you’ll get (there will be a time when those are your beds, and then you’ll be fretting so hardcore about how to stop fretting over such things that you’ll work yourself up into a nervous breakdown from which only copious amounts of chocolate cupcakey goodness can save you… *looks at self pointedly*).

So writers, please forget about the sweeping resolutions this year. All you have to do is walk over to your bed. Tighten the sheets. Pull up the comforter. Arrange the pillows and stuffed animals. And take a deep breath. You’re fine. You can do this.

Bittersweet Hits the Shelves Today!

BittersweetHappy New Year, everyone! For my first post of 2012, I’m withholding predictions about the end of the world to announce the arrival of something even more sparkly and fun:

Bittersweet officially hits the shelves today!

*Cue winter wonderland confetti!*

Bittersweet is my third novel. Like Mom used to say to my brothers and me, I love all three equally. Only she was lying, because clearly I’m her favorite. And I’m talking about books, not kids. I don’t have kids. If I did, I would probably love them all equally, but who knows? The potential lovability of your unborn children. The actual end of the world. Who can predict such things?

Anyway, every book—its characters, its story, its journey—has been meaningful and special to me. But Bittersweet has earned a unique place in my heart that’s made the countdown to its release date even more exciting (and nail-biting) than usual.

Maybe it’s because the story unfolds in the winter and the book itself comes out in winter, my favorite time of year for curling up with a blanket, hot chocolate, and a good book. Or maybe because it takes place in a loosely fictionalized version of the area where I spent most of my childhood freezing my butt off. Or maybe because the cover is all glittery and yummy. Or maybe—most likely, if we’re being honest—because it prominently features two of my favorite things:

CUPCAKES.

and

HOCKEY BOYS.

Yes, the intensive research required for this book was excruciating, let me tell you… *coughcough*

Sweet stuff aside, here’s a bit more about Bittersweet:

Once upon a time, Hudson knew exactly what her future looked like. Then a betrayal changed her life, and knocked her dreams to the ground. Now she’s a girl who doesn’t believe in second chances… a girl who stays under the radar by baking cupcakes at her mom’s diner and obsessing over what might have been.

So when things start looking up and she has another shot at her dreams, Hudson is equal parts hopeful and terrified. Of course, this is also the moment a cute, sweet guy walks into her life…and starts serving up some seriously mixed signals. She’s got a lot on her plate, and for a girl who’s been burned before, risking it all is easier said than done.

It’s time for Hudson to ask herself what she really wants, and how much she’s willing to sacrifice to get it. Because in a place where opportunities are fleeting, she knows this chance may very well be her last…

If you’d like to check it out, you can pick up a copy from your favorite local bookstore or order online (note that B&N has the old cover showing for the hardcover edition—just a temporary glitch):

IndieBound | B&N | Amazon

If you’re in the Denver area, come see me at my favorite local bookstore, Tattered Cover in Highlands Ranch, on January 11th at 7PM. I’ll sign stuff and answer questions and most likely embarrass myself with my overzealous cupcake and hockey boy fangirling. Don’t miss it!

Happy New Year, all, and of course… happy reading!