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!