Saturday, November 20, 2010

Let's Read!

I hear all the time that kids these days don't read--that they're far more interested in TV and video games, so pretty soon kid's books will be a thing of the past. Well, I'm happy to say that all the kids I'm meeting while promoting my books are proving that theory wrong, wrong, wrong.

This past Sunday, I was invited to participate in Columbia University's Let's Read event, which was focused on kids ages 4-12. There was musical entertainment, resources for parents, and several authors (including yours truly) in attendance to read from their books. (Thank you to Troy CLE--the author of the Marvelous World saga--for recommending me, and to Lamar Lovelace for organizing.) It was the first time I'd ever stepped foot inside one of Columbia University's buildings. If you've never been, Columbia has a beautiful campus, especially in the fall when all the leaves are turning orange and yellow.

There I am outside of the Low Library. 

Anyway, I was pretty nervous. I had been asked to read from one of my Maya & Miguel books, which were published in  2005 and 2006. Back then I never got to do any author appearances or anything. I did the writing, and that was pretty much it. (Believe me, I was plenty excited just to get to do the writing.) This was the first time I'd be reading one of my Scholastic books for an actual audience of kids. Scary. Would they think it was funny? Would they find it boring and throw rotten tomatoes at me? I had no idea. But I had my moral support with me: my parents; my friends Camille, Shona, Maria, Brian, and Dereeka; Dereeka's kids, Arielle and Kevin; and Maria's niece, Katalyna. So even if all the kids did start throwing tomatoes, I'd have at least a dozen people standing by ready to tell me that getting pelted by rotten fruit is a sign of affection.

Thankfully, I didn't have to go first. That honor went to Quiara Hudes, the author of Welcome to My Neighborhood. After she went out onto the stage and sat in the big green chair to read, I peeked out to see how the kids reacted. Within seconds, Quiara was swarmed. The kids edged closer and closer to the stage, until they finally hung off the sides off the chair, listening to her with rapt attention. It was adorable. When Troy went out, he got the same treatment. The kids were all over him, listening to each and every word. This was my kind of crowd! Meanwhile, I stayed backstage, talking to Chris Grabenstein, author of The Smoky Corridor and The Hanging Hill. Chris was once an improv comedian, so for him, entertaining a group of kids is easy as pie. He told me about some of his school visits, where he and the students write a ghost story together. The kids end up not only entertained, but really excited about writing. Genius!

It was no surprise at all that when Chris walked out onto the stage and began to read one of his stories in a deep booming voice, the kids were entranced. I couldn't hear the whole thing from backstage, but every once in a while, I'd hear all the kids scream or laugh or clap. I was clearly following a rockstar.

At last, my turn came. After my introduction, I went out and sat in the big green chair, looking out into an audience of mostly very little kids and their parents, all sitting cross-legged on the floor. I said hi, told them I'd be reading one of the stories in Maya & Miguel: My Twin Brother/My Twin Sister, then asked if any of them had brothers and sisters. Hands shot up all over the place as kids shouted out "I have a brother!" or "I have a sister!" Some of them even had twins. "You have a twin?" I asked one boy. "Well, then this story is especially for you." I started reading, and just as they had done with all the authors before me, the children stormed the stage. Some leaned over the sides of the chairs, some stood behind me and read over my shoulder, some stood right in front of my chair and stared right at me as I read.

They laughed in all the right places. They interrupted to comment on things in the story. And they loved Maya and Miguel's pet parrot Paco (try saying that five times fast), who squawks and talks. See the little blond girl to my left? She's informing me here that parrots repeat everything you say. :)

Finally I finished my story and everyone clapped. I couldn't even leave the chair at first because I was still surrounded by kids. I loved it.

After I took off the mike, I walked back out to greet my friends and family but was immediately approached by some parents, asking me to sign books for their children. I spent the next half hour or so signing books and taking pictures with my friends and my new fans.

Sibling love!

My best friend Dereeka; her kids Arielle and Kevin;
my friend Maria and her niece, Katalyna; and me. 

Me and my friends Shona and Camille. 
And I'm so glad I stayed until the very end. The event opened with a jazz quartet and ended with an amazing a cappella group that sang "Sunday Morning" and a really cool Michael Jackson medley. 

A cappella group singing "Sunday Morning."
Post-reading celebration at Havana Central
with my friends and fam. Mm mm good.

Long story short, I had so much fun on Sunday. Plus, I sold some books while I was at it, and I was offered the opportunity to do a couple more book signings! Stay tuned for info about an appearance at the Columbia University Bookstore this January (Thanks, Amanda!), and I may be working with a nonprofit group that focuses on helping teens make good decisions. (More details on that once I have something nailed down.) I am really loving how one thing leads to another and another.  

As for my last proofreading class, well...I wish I could say it went as well as the Let's Read event. Since I've been on vacation all week, I was coming from Queens into Manhattan. I had to stop by my day job first because my friend from work was helping me with my lesson plan about book covers. (I owe you one, Derek.) I decided to drive. MISTAKE! I got caught in unbelievable traffic and it ended up taking me two hours to get to the city. Unreal. Then I got a surprise email that I'd have someone observing my class to make sure everything was going well. Great. Then when I caught the train to the school, the 6 train held me hostage just long enough to make me ten minutes late. Exactly what you want to happen when someone will be there making sure you're doing your job correctly. (sigh...) As I ran up the escalator stairs to the classroom (which wasn't easy, considering I had a bag full of heavy books and handouts for the students), I thought NYU will never want to work with me again! I finally reached my class to find my students (and the visitor) patiently waiting for me in silence. All eyes were on me as I huffed and puffed my way to the head of the class. Which is when I noticed the computer that had been set up for me--and that I completely wasn't expecting to be there. (I had requested it way back before the class started but had since decided to just use the overhead projector.) It took several minutes to figure out how to turn it off. And when I went to write some things on the board, I found there was not one piece of chalk to use. Jeez. Worst start of class ever. 

Thank goodness it got better. First we went over the design homework, then we did a review of proper querying; the difference between en-dashes, em-dashes, and hyphens; ellipsis points; and all the things involved in proofreading a nonfiction book. (Why, yes, it is as exciting as it sounds.) I also brought in for show and tell the new edition of the Chicago Manual of Style, which I bought over the weekend, to many oohs and aahs. Finally, we learned about proofreading book covers. 

You may not know this, but the cover of every book you read has been edited by a ton of people before it winds up in your hands. The copy writing department writes the text, the art department designs the images and layout, the editorial and publicity departments work on getting reviews so that we can put quotes on the cover, and people like me in the production department read it over and over again to make sure there are no mistakes. It's a lot of work for what seems like a small thing. Anyway, I gave the class a paperback book cover to proofread together. They actually seemed to have fun with it. I'm sure it was a nice break from the big chunks of text I've been giving them. At last, I handed out their homework and we called it a night. When I got home, I emailed the visitor to see what she thought--and to apologize for the technical difficulties. To my surprise, she wrote back that she'd loved the class and my enthusiasm. She said she even learned a couple of things that she hadn't known before! Phew... What a relief. Only two more classes to go... 

In other news... My friend and former coworker, Signe Pike, just had her book, Faery Tale, come out this month. Signe traveled to Ireland, Scotland, and England, among other places, to find out if faeries are real. Very cool. Check it out if you get a chance. It may be too mature for my fans, but it would make a lovely holiday present for any adult. :) 

And while you're doing that, read up on all the authors who participated in the Let's Read event. Not only are they awesome people, but their books are sure to be some of your favorites. 

Quiara Hudes:

Troy CLE:

Chris Grabenstein:

Henry Neff:

Deborah Gregory:

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Roses are Red, Violets are Blue...

I just finished watching Brave New Voices on HBO, and like every time I watch this series, it inspired me to write!

If you've never seen a poetry slam, I highly recommend that you get on that right away. It's so powerful to see writers pouring out their souls on the stage, and getting feedback from the crowd. It especially makes me happy to see really young kids expressing themselves through poetry. You may think you're not into poems, but have you ever read a Dr. Seuss book? How about Shel Silverstein? Do you listen to any rap music? Ever look up the lyrics to your favorite song and fall in love with the words? Then you, my friend, might be into poetry. Don't fight it. Embrace it! I'd love for you all to write a poem about something you care about--anything--and send it to me. I'll try to write a poem for every one I receive.

In the meantime, I guess I should fill you in on my last few proofreading classes. In the class before last, I taught them how to mark corrections in the text and assign responsibility. Did you know that every correction that is made to the text of a book has to be paid for by someone? If the printer makes a mistake, we call that a PE (printer's error). If the author makes a mistake and the proofreader doesn't catch it, that's an EA (editorial alteration). It gets more complicated, but I don't want to put you to sleep or anything. Moving right along...

In the next class, we entered the wonderful world of grammar. I can practically hear some of you groaning right now. But hey, learning some basic grammar rules will make your writing that much better and easier to understand. I don't happen to be the greatest at this subject. I'm one of those people who knows what sounds right, but I wouldn't necessarily be able to give you the technical term for it. So I called in a pro: Ellen Scordato. She has been in the business for 25 years and knows her way around a sentence. (I may have mentioned before that she interviewed me for one of her posts on the Barnes & Noble community blog, Unabashedly Bookish.) Anyway, after I introduced her to the class, she took over, walking them through the various parts of speech (there are 8, by the way) and some common mistakes that people make all the time. I'm so glad she gave this class. I learned a lot! I had completely forgotten the term "gerund." (For the record, it's a verb that can be used as a noun. For example: Running is fun.) Toward the end of the class, the students had to break up into groups, and each group took a sentence from a bag and had to explain what was wrong with the sentence and how they would fix it.

And in our last class, we tackled spelling. So many people think they can spell...until they have to take a spelling test! I gave the class some words that have stumped me in the past, or that I see author's spell incorrectly all the time--like "cemetery," "archaeologist," and "psychic." I'm happy to say they did pretty well. When I took this class years ago, I took a spelling test myself and was surprised to find out that I didn't know how to spell "accommodate." Two m's? Huh. Who knew? 

I did promise you a language tip for every class I taught, so now I owe you three! Here they are:

1. Titles like "mom" and "dad" are only capitalized when used in direct address or when used as a name.

    Example: Can you pick me up from school, Mom?  or  My dad said no, but Mom said yes.
    But:         My mom is my Facebook friend.

2. "Each other" is used for two people, "one another" is for three or more people.

    Example: Lisa and Tonya looked at each other and laughed.
    But:         Everyone on the volleyball team supported one another.

3. Use what is called an em-dash (a long dash) for interrupted speech and ellipsis points for trailing speech.

    Example: "I was going to call you, but--"
                    "Oh, no you weren't," Maria interrupted.

    But:         I wonder if . . . No, it's too scary to say out loud.

Phew! Okay, now that we have the school recap out of the way, time to fill you in on my next author appearance! I'll be participating in the Let's Read event at Columbia University in Manhattan on November 14 from 12 PM to 3 PM. My reading will be at 1:37 PM. If you happen to be in the area, come on down! It's free, there will be a bunch of other authors there, including Henry Neff and Troy CLE, there will be workshops for parents, and there will be music and other fun surprises. All the authors will be signing books afterward.

Well, that's all for now. I'm beat. But you all get cracking on those poems!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Each One Teach One

As most of you know by now, I have, in essence, three full-time jobs: I am a production editor at a major publishing house, I am a freelance proofreader/copyeditor, and of course I write kid's books. It's a lot to juggle and sometimes it seems like all I do is work. I don't get enough sleep, my laundry piles up until I'm forced to wash several huge loads at a time, and my friends barely get to see me. It can be exhausting and stressful.

The solution? Add on another job, of course.

Yes, I know, this makes me sound like a glutton for punishment, but when this most recent opportunity came along, I just couldn't say no. For the next eight weeks or so, I will be an adjunct instructor at NYU, teaching an evening class in the fundamentals of proofreading. This is a class I actually took myself several years ago when I had just started freelancing. Now, not only do I get to pass on my knowledge of an activity I do pretty much night and day, but I get to live out my lifelong fantasy of being a teacher!

I've had some phenomenal teachers in my life, some of whom really helped shape the type of person I became and who always encouraged me to write. (To name a few: Mr. Ron Ventola, Yesho Atil, Dr. Diana Hume George, Professor Alan Parker, Mrs. Pearl, Mrs. Hubert, Mr. Donin, Ms. Grist...) Some I had in elementary school or junior high, some in high school or college, but all  of them made a big impression and instilled in me a great respect for the teaching profession. (Maybe it's no surprise that my best friend is a high school teacher.)

Anyway, I'm teaching a class of adults, all professionals in their own right, so I don't expect them to break out into a chorus of "To Sir, With Love" at the end of the semester or anything. But it is cool to realize that I now know enough about a subject to teach it to others. It makes me feel like my time toiling away in the publishing world has been worth it.

We had our first class on Monday night, where we covered the basic proofreading marks and the general book publishing process. Everyone seems really smart and they're picking it up quickly. So far, they seem to like me (although that could be just because I brought them Munchkins). I'll let you know how it goes from here on in. I hope not to have to report any angry class revolts or anything.

And as long as we're talking about proofreading, for all you current or future writers out there, taking a proofreading, copyediting, or grammar class--or learning a little something about it on your own--is a great idea. It will ultimately improve your writing. You may think you have a good grasp of English, but if you really started studying all the rules of the language, you'd be amazed at how much you don't know! (I know I was.) And if you are a storyteller, words are your tools. So why not learn how to use them correctly?

For the length of this semester, I'll be giving you all one language tip in every blog I post. It'll just be a common error that I come across in manuscripts all the time. If you know the tip of the week already, great! Drop me a line and I'll try to find something you don't already know. Extra points if you find errors in this blog. Deal?

Today's Tip:
* "Further" refers to degree or extent, "farther" refers to literal distance.

I'm sick of this subject and don't want to discuss it any further.
Joe's house is a lot farther away from the school than mine.

Now feel free to tell me about some great teachers you've had in your life and what made them so special.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Happy Birthday to Me

So yesterday yours truly turned 35. What? you're thinking. Impossible! You look so very, very young! (Even if you're not thinking that, it's what I choose to imagine you're thinking.) But it's true. I am now ten years past the age that, as a 10-year-old, I thought of as ancient. I think because I was going to turn 25 in the year 2000, which seemed highly futuristic and space age at the time, I equated that age with being super old.

Well, of course I no longer think that. I now know that 35 is when you turn super old.

Just kidding! Aside from the facts that I've started sprouting a stray gray hair here and there, my knees aren't what they used to be, and I can no longer eat whatever I want without gaining (mumble mumble) pounds, I still pretty much feel like I did in high school. I'm still just as into music and books, I still get celebrity crushes, and I still find most of the same things funny as I did back then.

To that end, I thought I'd devote this blog to something that made me laugh recently--and it has to do with a subject I've been dealing with since I was a kid and likely always will: my hair. The battle against my poofy, frizzy, hard to tame curls, to be specific. I know those of you who have straight hair will say that I'm crazy to have ever wanted anything other than my big, wild ringlets. I'd kill for curly hair! I can practically hear some of you shouting. But that's only because you never wet your hair in the morning and brushed it straight, sure it would stay that way, then went off to school, feeling divine, only to have it dry and become an enormous bush, making me look like I was walking around with a giant bird's nest on my head. Not cute at all. Don't get me wrong. I have love for my curls now that I have learned how to manage them. But back then, I didn't have a clue.

Anyway, my coworker, Jen Rodriguez, feels my pain. She, too, had dealt with the horror of the crazy curls--pre-mousse and blow dryers. A former art major, she recently drew this cartoon, explaining the trauma to a friend of hers, and it made me laugh out loud. For all you curly-haired girls (and boys) out there, I hope it'll make you laugh too. (If you can't read the writing, I've written the words at the very bottom.)

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Everybody Watchung Tonight

If you've never been to Watchung Booksellers, you're missing out! It is a great independent bookstore in the heart of Montclaire, New Jersey, that really does its best to bring published authors, aspiring writers, and book lovers together. Last Friday, on September 24, I was lucky enough to participate in their Writing Matters series, serving alongside a panel of authors to discuss the children's book market. The other panelists were Susanna Reich (author of Painting the Wild Frontier, Penelope Bailey Takes the Stage, and Jose! Born to Dance), Tracey Baptiste (author of Angel's Grace, Madeleleine L'Engle, and Being a Leader and Making Decisions), and Troy CLE (author of The Marvelous Effect and Olivion's Favorites--both part of the Marvelous World saga). Very cool company indeed. 

By the time I got to the bookstore, there was already a packed house! Some were adults who are writers themselves hoping to write children's books, some were just interested in the publishing process, and some were kids eager to meet a few authors and find something new to read. I just couldn't get over the fact that I was part of the reason they had all come that night. Most of the time, I still can't believe I'm being paid to work on books, let alone write them. So it was an honor for me to sit on this panel and share whatever knowledge I've gained so far. 

First they introduced each of us and we each talked a little bit about how we broke into the writing-for-kids business. I may have told you this before, but I got my first writing job by responding to an ad on craigslist, believe it or not. Troy self-published his book and it became so successful that publishers eventually took notice. Tracey submitted a couple of chapters of her book, not even thinking it would lead to anything. But those chapters became Angel's Grace. And Susanna once worked in book publicity. When she decided to write for children, she initially wrote picture books, which is harder than it looks. But then she discovered historical biographies for kids and success soon followed. 

We went on to discuss what we think makes kids stay interested in our books. We all agreed that it's a combination of things: story lines and characters kids can relate to, writing that is entertaining, and in my case, providing something that's interactive so the reader is engaged on a personal level. I completely agree with Tracey, who said that she still writes for the 12-year-old inside her. (I still feel like that 12-year-old!) So if she finds the story entertaining, young readers will too. 

We also talked about eBooks and if we think traditional books will be able to compete for the attention of our audience against TV and video games, etc. Personally, I'm not afraid of eBooks. My own books are available in eBook format, which I think is great, and I do have a Kindle. But I still see plenty of kids reading books that they can carry around and flip through without turning on any kind of device. There's room for both, and people who have always loved paper books will continue to love them. (I hope.) 

Someone in the audience asked how important it was to be up-to-date with technology as far as Web sites and blogs. Very! I, for one, really love being able to talk directly to my fans in this format, and I love it even more that they can reach me too. Not to mention a lot of great opportunities have come my way because I have a Web site and it isn't too hard to get in touch with me. And I can't even tell you how much it helps all writers that there are so many blogs devoted to book reviews these days. It's so weird. When I was in college only (mumble mumble) years ago, we were just being introduced to email. It actually took me forever to figure out how to use my account. I still have a box full of letters--yes, handwritten letters--that my friends and I wrote to one another all through college. Checking my mailbox was sometimes the highlight of my day. And now, not that many years later, I can't IMAGINE my life without the Internet. I like being able to find out what's going on with all my friends on Facebook in a matters of minutes. I like being able to post pictures of my latest vacation so my mom can see them without bending the photos. And I love getting to chronicle this new career of mine for whoever is interested. No doubt technology has changed the game, and no one knows that better than the kids who are coming up now, most of whom have never known life before computers. 

Anyway,  we ended up giving the writers in the audience some advice that would be helpful for any aspiring writer to know.  Here are the ones that stayed in my head:

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Good-bye, Summer!

Well, it has been a pretty amazing summer. I've been busy, busy, busy! I'm not even sure where to start...

I guess I should first mention that the Princeton Public Library's 5th Annual Children's Book Festival on September 11 was a raging success! I got to meet a ton of new fans who had me sign their books. I can't tell you how happy it makes me to see so many kids come to a book festival like this one, excited about reading. You can see all the pictures I took there on my Facebook Your Life, But Better fan page, but here are just a handful.

As you can see, it was a beautiful day outside, and I had the best time meeting with my fans. I got to be a fan too! I met R. L. Stine and Henry Neff--and they couldn't have been nicer. Thank you to Allison Santos for organizing and including me in such a wonderful event, the Princeton Public Library for hosting, and to Barnes & Noble for providing the books. (Their copies of Your Life, But Better sold out!) If you ever get a chance, definitely swing by the Princeton Public Library and check out their children's books section on the third floor. It's a sight to see. 

After the book festival, my parents and I headed over to the Jazz Feast, which was going on just a few blocks away. I'm so glad we did too. The place was packed! We got to listen to some great jazz while eating deeeelicious paella that was made right in front of us in enormous skillets. 

My mom and dad enjoying the paella.

I had a really good time in New Jersey. The weekend before the festival was pretty fun too. I went to Milwaukee on September 4 to attend my friend Tom's wedding. For those of you who read my blog or my acknowledgments pages, you've heard of Tom before. He's one of my friends who has talked me through a couple of bouts with writer's block. He's a writer too, so his help definitely comes in handy. He's also the one who had his four nieces read an early draft of my first book so they could write me reviews. (I posted them in earlier blogs.) Well, I finally got to meet all four of them. They were as psyched to meet me as I was to meet them, which was nice. And they're all such sweethearts! As a thank-you for being my very first reviewers, I brought each of them a copy of Your Life, But Cooler. 
Megan, Valerie, me, Hannah, and Olyvia

All of us laughing at something one of the guests said
about my entourage. 
I am currently awaiting their reviews of the second book in the series. I hope they like it!

Meanwhile, I have finished writing the next book in the series, Your Life, But Sweeter, which will hit the stores this December. And more great news: Starting next month, my books will be available in Targets everywhere! I'm very, very excited about that. 

I have one more author appearance coming up on September 24 to tell you about. I'll be on a Writing Matters panel along with a great group of children's book authors at the Watchung Booksellers bookstore in Montclaire, NJ, at 7 pm discussing the children's book market. So if you happen to be in the area, come on by and feel free to ask lots of questions. I'll do my best to answer them! 

Until next time!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Say It Ain't So

So it seems my sabbatical is over. (Pause here to reflect on the sadness of that statement.)

But at least I have my memories. When you last heard from me, I had just arrived in Santorini--specifically Oia--a place so beautiful it seems like a movie set. (Well, it was a movie set! I actually found the house they used as Lena's grandmother's house in Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants! My friends make fun of me for being so excited about this, but I love that movie--and I'm crazy about the guy who played Kostas.)

This is the place they used as Lena's grandmother's house
in Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (1 and 2).

Remember when Lena comes home after going to see Kostas on his boat, and
she looks up at him on the stairs? Well, this is where he was standing!

The only problem was, my hotel was less than stellar. Long story short, I ended up finding a new hotel (Ifestio Villas) and asking for a room. They had only one villa (yes, villa) left. They weren't sure I would want it since it was so huge. (Being from New York, the land of closet-size apartments and overcrowded subway cars, I felt that a space being too big was not a problem. I wasn't even sure "too big" was possible.) So they took me to see the place, and before we even entered, my answer was "I'll take it!" We went down several fights of narrow, whitewashed stairs, flowers and colorful doors on all sides. Finally we reached the lowest landing and entered a spacious private balcony directly overlooking the caldera. There was a big table with blue mosaic tiles on one side next to a giant umbrella for shade. Below the balcony was a wild bush bursting with bright pink flowers and a small patch of tomatoes. In a word, unbelievable.

Still, that in no way prepared me for what I saw when she opened the door: An enormous living room with two comfy couches, a dining room area big enough to seat six people, and a full kitchen with a refrigerator stocked with ham, cheese, bread, milk, orange juice, homemade tomato jam, butter, sweet fruit roll, bruschetta, and my own bottle of wine! (Mind you, this was not a mini-bar type of thing. All this was included.) Continuing the tour, I was shown not one, not two, but three bedrooms, one of which had it's own private bathroom. Each one had a closet, a dresser, candles, and two or three sets of flip-flops. Then there was the master bathroom, a big cavelike room painted blue (all the other rooms were white) with a deep sink and, most important, a jacuzzi tub. I wish I could say this is how I roll all the time, but the truth is, I have never rolled quite like this in my life! It was pricier than I'd hoped, but come on, did you read the description? Since it was only for two nights anyway, I went for it. I felt like such a baller! I couldn't believe I had this enormous space all to myself.

Anyway, Santorini was incredible. While I was there, I walked all the way down the steps of the cliff to the Amoudi Port and swam at the black beach at the bottom.

I took a sunset catamaran cruise and swam in the hot springs and snorkeled along the coast while wild goats looked on from the mountains. I met a family of Australian tourists who told me I am welcome to stay with them if ever I find myself down under. I sat on a low wall and quietly watched the sun set surrounded by dozens of strangers doing the same. I fell in love with Santorini.

But before I knew it, July 4 had come and it was time to move on. I packed up my things, kissed my out-of-this-world villa good-bye, and only two cab rides, three shuttle buses, and three plane trips later, I was in Prague! Too bad I had forgotten to bring my Prague handbook and didn't have the address of my hotel, because my cab driver had never heard of it. Luckily I remembered that I was right across from Kinsky Gardens, and before long, I checked into the Red and Blue Design Hotel.

The next day, my friend Brian (who I used to work with but who now lives in Prague with his wife and kids) showed up early in the morning to be my personal tour guide. He actually used to give tours there for a living, so I was in really good hands. That first day we walked all over the place! We saw a house that one of his students (he teaches English now) was given by the government after the fall of Communism--to replace the one they had taken from her father. Apparently, under communism in Prague, it was common for the government to seize the best houses to give to its leaders.

We walked on and stopped into the Church of Our Lady Victorious, which was beautiful and full of amazing pieces of art. We walked through Lesser Town, over cobblestone streets and beneath high stone arches, heading toward the famous Charles Bridge. We stopped in at Cafe Louvre, where the writer Franz Kafka and Albert Einstein used to hang out, and I had my first Czech meal: roast beef in cream sauce with bread and cranberry sauce.

Me at the Cafe Louvre, pointing out all the famous authors who have eaten there.   (And adding myself to the list!)

We saw the National Theater and the theater where Mozart debuted Don Giovanni. We toured the Museum of Communism--which, ironically enough, houses a big McDonald's. Mostly we walked around and marveled at the beauty of the architecture and the river. Then later that night we met up with his wife, Dana, and her nephew Jan at a Latino restaurant in town, where we talked and laughed for hours. Eventually Dana and I ditched the boys and headed out for a girls' night out on the town! Too bad everyone else was out of town. It seems that I was there on a holiday weekend, which is when all the residents of Prague go elsewhere. So when we tried to go out clubbing that night, we instead found a lot of empty places and a handful of high school kids staying at local youth hostels.

Where is the party, Prague? I couldn't find it. And by then, my foot was killing me anyway. It's pretty hard to be a party girl when you're limping and wincing in pain. So Dana put me in a cab and sent me back to my hotel.

The next day I was in so much pain I could barely walk! I stayed in my room all day and tried to do some writing. I also watched Roots and a ridiculous number of Lifetime movies (the only things playing on the lone English channel).

By morning I felt a lot better and ventured out into town all on my own. I figured out the tram and the Metro and made my way to the Prague Castle.

The president of the Czech Republic lives here!

Pretty cool, right? Later I met up with my tour guide and he showed me around Letna Park and the rest of the area known as Prague 7, where he lives. I had dinner with his family, and by the time I left his little boy Liam was calling me Auntie. (Aww...) But before I knew it, it was time for me to go, since I was flying home the next day. Too bad I got on the wrong tram and ended hopelessly lost in Prague! (Oops.) Luckily for me, I met someone who pointed me back in the right direction and I made it back to my room right before midnight. In one piece! I used the very last of my Czech money to catch a cab to the airport, and thus ended my European adventure.

Phew. Sorry this posting has gone on forever. And this was the short version! Anyway, obviously I had an amazing time in Greece and Prague. I look forward to my next international adventure! But for now, it's time to resettle into my life in good ol' NYC.

I have lots of writing updates for you too. But I'll do it tomorrow after I come from the Princeton Public Library's Children's Book Festival, where I will be reading from YOUR LIFE, BUT COOLER. Wish me luck!

Friday, July 2, 2010

Sabbatical: Day 21

I have been enjoying myself far too much to update this blog. But let's catch up before I get too lost in the magic of Santorini, shall we? I warn you, this one is long. Feel free to skim.

When we last spoke, the writing workshop was almost over. The last day in Andros was just wonderful. That morning I brought in the revisions I'd made to my story in progress and the group approved of them--making some minor suggestions about word choices in a couple of sections. They were the exact places that I thought were clunky or not right too, so I was grateful for their help. They pointed out a couple of other things I hadn't even thought of. I love this group! I now feel obliged to finish it.

Dimple read us her revisions and her story is even stronger now. (Which is saying a lot, because it's already a hell of a piece.) It's really amazing how moving scenes around can make your story that much more powerful. In your own writing, try to play with that. Read what you've written out loud. If you come across a sentence or scene that really packs a punch, why not start with that and grab our attention right away? Or if something is boring for you to read, why not take it out altogether? We worked on more of Michelle's poetry and no one had much to say because they seem ready for publication. She wrote one called "The Writer's Alphabet" that I really wish I had written. Dawn reworked her personal essay and I loved the new structure. Just a simple suggestion or two from Natalie and the thing has meat on its bones now.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Sabbatical: Day 15

So the writer's workshop is almost over. Tomorrow is the last day, and already I miss it. They are all making plans to get together for dinner in Athens when they return on Monday, but I'll be on my way to Mykonos with Annalize (one of my new workshop buddies and an amaaazing woman), who will be going on to another island that afternoon, after which I'll be on my own.

Today we had a guest speaker, Adrien, a poet who lives in Athens. She told us a little about prose poetry and that the most important part of writing poems is precision. When writing poetry, you must be very economical with your words, using only the most necessary ones. There should be some sort of tension, as our instructor Natalie is always reminding us, followed by a resolution or payoff. If you're able to do this in a poem, it can only help your prose writing.

Then we workshopped a few poems in class. Amalia wrote a beautiful poem about the death of her father. Miriam read a gorgeous piece that she wrote for her daughter's wedding. I continue to be so impressed with everyone in this group!

Then we discussed the pantoum, a form poem in which the second and third lines of the first stanza become the first and third lines of the second stanza, and so on and so on, until the last stanza, where the third and first lines of the first stanza become the second and fourth lines of the last stanza. Yeah, I know that sounds confusing, but it's actually really cool and I urge you to give it a try.

We shared our poems with one another as we sat in the empty restaurant by the pool, listening to the sounds of a student dance recital being held on the tennis courts. (Greek kids seem to really like Gwen Stefani.) Dawn wrote a moving poem about her friend finally leaving her abusive husband. Dimple wrote about the pressure she feels to live up to society's expectations (it was great--and she's never written poetry before!). I'm reading Michelle's now, but I'm sure it's amazing. (She is working on a book of poems and I'm sure she'll be published as soon as she's done, she's that good.)

Part of what I wanted to accomplish while I am here is to write a wedding poem for my best friend, who is getting married in August. She requested a Velasquez original. So I decided to make my pantoum about her, about us--how we felt about love as 12-year-old kids and how we feel about it now all these years later, as she is about to marry a wonderful man. The other women in the workshop really liked it, including the visiting poet, to my relief. They all say that even though it's not a Hallmark-type poem meant to be read at a wedding necessarily, I should definitely give it to my friend. I think I will. It's a little personal to reprint here, but I'll give you the one I wrote when Natalie gave us the prompt: "I did it because..." Enjoy.

I Did It Because 
(a haiku by Crystal Velasquez)

I did it because
Everyone said not to.
What did they expect?

P.S. Tonight's dinner was Greek salad with giant blocks of feta cheese, risotto, pork, bread, some delicious cheese cake-type custard dessert with a gram cracker crust and berries on top, and big slabs of watermelon and green melon. I am going to miss this place very, very much. 

Friday, June 25, 2010

Sabbatical: Day 14 (?)--Andros

Sorry I haven't been able to update this blog. Today is the first time I've actually gotten a signal in my room! In any case, I've been busy writing, which is nice. The workshop so far is phenomenal. All the women in my writing group are amazing writers and their comments on my short story (well, the beginning of a short story that could become a novel) really helped. I've been working on this story for years and haven't finished it. But I think I might now. And they are recommending so many books to me that I may have to clear out the library when I get home.

The only down side so far: Right before I got on the ferry heading to Andros, I fell on a slippery sidewalk ramp and WHAM! I went down...hard. I twisted my ankle and have been hobbling around ever since. The hotel was kind enough to provide me with a pair of crutches, and they even took me to the hospital for X-rays, where I found out that nothing was broken. I just have some strained ligaments. My hope is I'll be fine in a day or two. But even if I'm not, I'll just limp around, I guess. Nothing will stop me from enjoying this trip!

Monday, June 21, 2010

Sabbatical: Day 11 (I think)

Right now I am sitting on a balcony in a high-end hotel in Athens overlooking the Acropolis. 

It is about 6:30 in the morning and all I can hear are the chirping of birds and trees rustling in the breeze. Below me the streets are empty and the bushes are full of pink and white flowers. And soon I will get showered and dressed so I can have breakfast at the rooftop restaurant and then do a little shopping before I meet up with the other writers in the workshop.

Wow. It's been a long time since I've woken up this relaxed. It took a long time to get here (about 7 hours on a plane to Poland and then another two and a half from there to Athens), but it was worth it. Is this how the other half lives all the time? If so, I really want to be in that half. For now, I'll just enjoy this brief vacation from work, work, work. I'm looking forward to meeting the other writers and getting to spend some time writing something new, something literary, something with no deadline in sight. Aaahh... So far, I think Greece and I are going to get along just fine.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Sabbatical: Day 1

Yesterday was my first official day of my sabbatical. No work for a month! I am free to do whatever I want! Naturally, I started off my day See, I foolishly accepted two proofreading jobs that of course need to be handed in before I leave for Greece. So I got up early and spent a couple of hours reading. The cool part about being a freelance proofreader is that I read all the time for fun anyway. So getting paid to do it almost feels like I'm running some sort of scam. Ha! They're actually paying me to read. Suckers!

But I couldn't do that for long since I had to get dressed and head to Times Square, where I met with a few friends of mine for Selena's birthday brunch at Blue Fin. If you ever get a chance to go, you won't be sorry. The food is amazing. We're talking feta omelets with peppers, tomatoes, and onions, home fries, perfectly cooked turkey bacon, lemon blueberry pancakes, warm raisin bread, creme brulee with fresh strawberries and cookies; chocolate mousse cake, peppermint tea... Mm mm good. Good call, Selena! The waiters brought the birthday girl a parfait desert with a lit candle and the rest of us sang her the birthday song while she blew out the candle. Then she opened her presents and we toasted to another fabulous year in her life. The four of us sat and talked for a long time, even after the food was gone and the rest of the place had emptied out. Then we headed over to the movie theater on 8th Avenue to see The A-Team. Loved it!

Finally, Dionne and Selena headed off to 34th Street to do a little shopping, Diane headed home, and I hopped on the 7 train to return to Flushing and get back to work. All in all, day one of my sabbatical? Good times.

On the menu today: More work, and a trip to a spa in Brooklyn with Stephanie. (We both have gift certificates that we never used, so we're cashing them in today.) Sixty-minute massage and facial, here I come!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Once again, I've been an absentee blogger. But the upside of that is that I now have tons of stuff to fill you in on. First of all, YOUR LIFE, BUT COOLER is now on the stands! So definitely run and pick that up. (You can find it online if you can't get to a bookstore.) Just today it was reviewed by Girls' Life magazine:

So far, so good.

I was also interviewed by Ellen Scordato for her Barnes & Noble grammar blog. My first interview! Check it out:

And I'm excited to report that I have had my first two official in-store author appearances! The first was at the Barnes & Noble in Princeton, NJ, on May 15. But, um, none of you were there. (Doh!) Too bad too, because I had on a new dress and some killer shoes that you guys would have loved. Oh well. Good thing I had invited some friends and my proud parents. We were a small crowd, but the B&N event coordinator, Debi, was great to me.

"You know how many people were at Stephenie Meyers' first reading?" she asked me. I shook my head. "Ten. You know how many were at her second?" I shook my head again. "Six hundred." Okay, so that made me feel a little better. You've got to start somewhere, right? Besides, truth be told, I was extremely nervous before I got there, and when I realized I would be reading only for my parents and a handful of friends (and some guy in the back who was talking on his cell phone), I was kind of relieved. Plus, I got to keep the promotional posters. (Yes, I plan to frame them and put them up in my home office. What of it?) I did do a short reading and even had a little Q&A session, so I got some quality practice in. And Debi showed me where they were displaying my new book and I was happy to see that not only was it placed with the cover facing out, but it was on a shelf at eye level! (Eye level is definitely where you want to be. Trust me.) Afterward my parents and I, along with my friend Shona, drove to downtown Princeton and did a little sightseeing and of course eating. (NOTE: Princeton University is gorgeous.)

The second bookstore appearance at the BookMark Shoppe in Brooklyn on May 20 went a little better in that there were actual kids there. (Hooray!) I owe that all to the genius of the two owners, Christine Freglette and Bina Valenzano, who had the brilliant idea of holding a writing contest for kids leading up to the event. The assignment was to write their own version of a choose-your-adventure story by taking their favorite story or poem and changing it in some way. They could insert themselves in the story, change the ending, whatever they wanted to do. Awesome idea. They got more than fifty entries! How they narrowed it down, I have no idea, because all the entries sounded great. (Speaking of great, if you're ever in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, you must go to the BookMark Shoppe. It's been awhile since I've been in an independent bookstore, and let me tell you, it was refreshing. They had a wonderful selection of books, gift items, cards...all kinds of cool things. And walking in there was just like walking into a warm hug or something.) Anyway, the kids were absolutely adorable, and they actually seemed psyched to meet me. But I was way more excited to meet them and read some of their stories. Again, I read a chapter from Your Life, But Cooler! and then I got to hand the winners their prizes--a gift card and a copy of my book.

Before everyone cleared out, I signed all of their books and we took pictures together. It was a really proud moment for me, and I hope the kids had fun. I'll post my own event photos soon, but in the meantime, you can check out this write-up in the Bay Ridge Eagle to read more about it and see pictures of the winners:

Or check out the BookMark Shoppe's site (check out their brag page) to see all the photos:

In other news, I have something pretty exciting coming up: a trip to Greece and Prague! As you may know, I have a day job at a book publishing company. Because I have worked here for ten years, I am entitled to take a sabbatical, a one-month vacation to use however I wish. Well, I decided I wanted to do something exciting, but where I could also learn a thing or two and be creative. So at the end of June, I'll be participating in a writer's workshop in Andros, one of the islands near Athens. I will spend six days there, writing fiction and poetry, and reading what other people are writing--all while staying in a beautiful hotel on a Greek island. After that, I'm going to see the islands of Mykonos and Santorini. (For all you Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants fans, Santorini is where Lena spent her first summer.) And then I'm off to Prague, which I hear is magical. I. Can't. Wait! I'm a little nervous since this will be the first trip abroad that I've ever taken all by myself, but I hear that's something every person should do at least once in their lifetime if they can. I'm excited to be doing it now. (Of course, I'll be paying for this trip until I'm about 85, but whatever...) And don't worry--I'm taking all of you with me. I'll keep updating this blog as often as I can while I'm traveling and I'll post lots of pictures either here or on the Your Life, But Better Facebook page. 

Oh! And there's one more bit of good news: My manuscript for book #3, Your Life, But Sweeter, has been accepted! Phew... You have no idea how relieved I am. To be honest, I had a bad case of writer's block on this one. But thanks to my friends Camille, Tom, and Dereeka, and my mom--all of whom spent way too much time helping me brainstorm--I got through it. (Thanks, guys!) So be on the lookout for that one this December. 

Okay, time for me to get out of here and drag myself to the gym. (This blog isn't the only thing I've been neglecting while working on the book.) We'll talk again soon! 

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Bad Blogger!

I know, I know.... Where have I been? Why have I let more than a month go by without updating this blog? Well, I have no excuse, except to say that I have been ridiculously busy. Now that the series has officially launched, things are happening pretty quickly. Like Inigo Montoya says in The Princess Bride, "Let me explain.... No, there is too much. Let me sum up."

First, on Friday, January 29, I had my first book launch party! I invited a bunch of my closest friends, my family, and a few of the great people at Delacorte Press who worked on the book to Bowlmor Lanes in Manhattan for a few hours of food, fun, and of course, book buying. Yes, I arrived a little late, but I had a good excuse! I was all the way up on 116th Street in Harlem picking up an amazing cake from the Make My Cake bakery. Take a look.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Have Your People Call My People

The past few weeks have been full of good news. For starters, I will be making my first ever author appearance this fall! The fine people at the Watchung Booksellers bookstore in Montclaire, New Jersey, have launched a writing discussion series called Writing Matters. In September they'll be discussing the craft and business of writing children's books--and they've asked me to be a panelist! (Exciting, no?) Even better is the fact that I actually have a publicist that I have to run this kind of thing by. (Is it too soon for me to say stuff like, "Have your people call my people"?)

Also, reviewed Your Life, but Better! and gave it their Flamingnet Top Choice Award. (They review books on a scale from 1-10, and anything that scores a 9 or 10 is considered a Top Choice book.) Thanks, Flamingnet!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Managing a Little Mischief

It's official: My book is now on sale, everybody!

So to celebrate the occasion, I did what any sane person would do: I stalked my book all over town. Okay, I only went to two locations, and I wasn't stalking in a creepy way. I mean, I brought friends with me, I never hid behind a bush or anything, and I wore a very fashion-forward scarf the whole time.

First I visited the Borders bookstore near Columbus Circle. I was a little bummed to find two lonely copies on a bottom shelf in a dark corner of the store (it is sometimes a curse to have a last name that starts with V in a world where most things are placed alphabetically). But of my friends spotted the New Stuff shelf, where they have my book on display!