The ARCs have arrived!

The advanced reader copies (ARCs) for So Shelly arrived in last Friday’s mail. It was nearly a year to the day from when I had finished the novel and began the querying process. (I pause to laugh at the word “finished.” I had no idea then how many rounds of revision the text would endure before being set in type in the arc in front of me.) The only word I can conjure to describe the feeling of holding my own book in my hands is surreal. It’s something that I wish every aspiring writer could experience.

Although I’ve yet to read the story in its new home inside its comfy covers, every so often I stop to look at one sitting on my desk, or on a coffee table, or in my wife’s hands as she reads it for the first time (I think there’s a post-modern, meta-fictional short story waiting to be written there). Books have been my constant companions throughout my lifetime. They have been my co-tenants in every living or work space into which I have ever settled. To have one of my own join their company has produced in me a sort of pride that can best be described as paternal. I mean, I know it’s just a book, but it’s full of me – almost like a child sharing my genetic code. I know that’s a bit of a trite metaphor, but it’s all I have.

I haven’t read one of arcs myself because it’s too much like looking in a mirror. All of my hypercritical attention is immediately directed to perceived faults and shortcomings, which the vast majority of people will never notice and, most certainly, never call attention to. I’m not sure I will ever be able to read So Shelly now that it has left the nest of my computer, where it could be forever protected, nurtured, and refined. When I look at her now, I’m simultaneously proud of what she’s become and anxious regarding her ability to survive in the world outside of my head and laptop.

In a day or two, the presence of my arcs will grow passé. They will mix and mingle with the many volumes that share my home. But, not today.

My debut novel, So Shelly, is available for pre-order at all major online bookstores including, Amazon:; Barnes and Noble:; Borders:;  Books-A-Million:; and IndiBound:

What Do LeBron James and Self-Publishing Have in Common?

Until now, I’ve put off throwing my two cents into the debate regarding self-publishing. I’ve hesitated because, frankly, that penny jar is already overflowing. However, in the wake of LeBron James’s recent decision to take his game to South Florida, I recognized a similarity to those who abandon their dream of attracting a mainstream publisher and choose to self-publish.

I’d like to say I’m not judging either James or self-publishing writers; however, that would be a lie. The fact is that I am judging both of these choices. As for James, and it has been pointed out many times, any future glory he may gain in winning championships with the Miami Heat will be tainted by the reality that he didn’t earn it as much as he purchased it. The indisputable fact is that he failed in the attempt to elevate his game and his Cleveland teammates to a level deserving of an NBA championship. Then, instead of persevering in his original and noble pursuit, sadly, James’s desperation for validation as one of the all-time NBA greats (which, rightly or wrongly, is measured by titles won) motivated him to “sell out” and to travel what he perceives to be an easier road to a ring.

As for the writer who surrenders the dream of winning an agent and a publishing deal with a mainstream publisher, he commits the same error as James. In desperate pursuit of recognition as a published author, he hires a print-for-hire publisher, who delivers the books but little of the glory. As James too will discover, should he ever win a title in Miami, the self-published author wins little of the respect he desires and will, most likely, spend more time justifying the legitimacy of his “achievement” to skeptical followers and to himself as he will spend relishing the attainment of the goal. For, in fact, the original goal was never reached.

I have many other objections to self-publishing. I also concede that legitimate reasons for choosing it do exist, and the very occasional self-published title does meet with success. For me, however, I never considered it, precisely for the reason I’ve already outlined. There simply is no glory in it. I chose either to publish according to the rules of mainstream publishing or to fail nobly. To my great fortune, despite over four years of meeting with constant rejection, I persevered, threaded the needle, and earned a two-book deal with Random House/Delacorte. Should I sell fewer than one hundred books, I sincerely believe I have met with a satisfaction that the exclusively self-published author will never experience. Just as LeBron James will never know the sense of accomplishment felt by Larry Bird, Kobe Bryant, Magic Johnson, and many others who earned their rings the right way.

Revisions and Edits and Facts, Oh My!

As my debut novel, So Shelly, enters the final stages before actually going to press, one of the most pleasant surprises for me has been how much I’ve enjoyed the revision process. Each occasion on which the manuscript has passed from my hands to my editors’ and back to my own has afforded me the opportunity to do just that: re-envision the story through fresh eyes. With each new look, the settings, characters, plots, and themes have been tweaked and refined to such an extent that, today, the novel is a much different and much improved text from the one I pitched to agents a year ago. I’ve shared many times that if Random House would let me, I would probably continue to re-vision this one novel for the entirety of my career.

I can’t say, however, that I have acquired an equal enthusiasm for the art of copyediting/proofreading. Both of these processes, which entail the meticulous examination of the text for errors in usage, grammar, plausibility, consistency of tense and mood, and an exhaustive checking of facts, among many other things, are painstaking and, for me, stressful. Last night, for example, I woke in a panic when I realized that there was a small factual error in the “first pass pages” that I’d just returned to my publisher. Few readers would have noticed the error and it would have had no bearing on the story; however, I knew it was there and it would have remained a perpetual “small spot of bother” if it was left uncorrected. Upon the realization of my error, I rushed downstairs and spent nearly two hours researching to verify that, in fact, I had made a mistake; rewriting the paragraph in which it occurred; and finally composing an email to my editors notifying them of the needed changes. The thing is, I had read that paragraph, literally hundreds of times already, yet I had missed it until, for some reason, it rose to my consciousness. Now, I’m paranoid with the fear that other inaccuracies have been left uncorrected. No wonder I suffer from growing insomnia.

With that fear and stress acknowledged, however, it’s these “unsexy stages” of the publishing process that more than any other can elevate a good novel to the level of a great one or, at least, prevent a good novel from being tainted by amateurish errors. The editors, copyeditors, and proofreaders are, without question, the most underappreciated artists in the entire process. It is precisely due to their absence that a large number of self-published texts appear amateurish in comparison to those thoroughly vetted during the traditional road to publication.

Now, just over six months to publication date, I simultaneously yearn for and dread the day that the story is permanently set in type and printed. On that day there will be no more “do-overs” or opportunities to edit the manuscript. However, with absolute faith in my editors, with the knowledge of my own exhaustive efforts, and with no claim on perfection, I am completely confident that So Shelly will pass any and all tests of its entertainment value and legitimacy.

So You Want to be a Writer: My Best Advice

1. Turn off or at least severely limit your time in front of the television.
2. Read both newspapers and magazines in order to stay up-to-date with what’s real, current, and what trends are approaching, and read fiction, especially in the genre which you hope to publish.
3. Immerse yourself among people who reflect the characters about whom you plan to write. I am currently writing YA, so my job as a high school teacher provides me with a constant stream of characters, settings, and plot ideas. Someday soon, I want to write a book about the elderly. At that point, I will position myself in situations that will allow me interaction and the opportunity to observe senior citizens.
4. Shut up. Instead of talking, listen to and eavesdrop on other people talking. Make mental note of their words, colloquialisms, tone, and the cadence of their speech.
5. Open your eyes. See, I mean really see, everything, and mentally (if you do it out loud, people will think you’re nuts) try to describe what you see both literally (colors, shapes, textures, etc.) and figuratively (similes, metaphors, personifications).
6. Write regularly. It doesn’t have to be at the same time every day or even every day. You don’t have to write a prescribed number of words or pages. What you have to do is build the habit so that writing is a necessary part of who you are. For example, I’m a runner. I always say, “Runners run!” Meaning, it doesn’t matter if it’s raining or I’m sore. I’m a runner. So I run. Well, if you want to consider yourself a writer, write!
7. Create your own rituals for your writing time and to snap yourself out of dry spell. For example, before I even turn on my computer, I like to lie on the floor for ten minutes or so, close my eyes, and think about what goals I have for my writing during the upcoming session. If I get stuck, I’ll go for a walk or a run. Sometimes, if I feel completely blocked, I will take a shower and change into clothes in which I feel “writerly.” When struggling for ideas, John Keats used to get dressed for a “night on the town” then sit down to write.
8. Be yourself. Let your own style and story types develop organically. Let your similarities to other writers emerge naturally, and, trust me, they will. Everything you’ve ever read is still stored in your memory. Consciously or not, you will imitate.
9. Dream of a glorious future, but live in the mundane present. Go ahead. Imagine your book on store shelves and future bestseller lists. Imagine future book signings and public readings. Imagine your book being made into a future feature film. Imagine whatever future motivates you to write, but the fact is that none of those goals can come true if you don’t sit your butt in front of your computer and write something today.
10. Chase another dream. Unless, you can 1) take frequent rejection, 2) can keep writing despite the fact that the odds are enormously against you ever succeeding, and 3) can spend large amounts of time alone and inside of your own head.

My debut novel, So Shelly, is available for pre-order at all major online bookstores including, Amazon:; Barnes and Noble:; Borders:;  Books-A-Million:; and IndiBound:

Sales or the Truth?

Recently, I took part in an interesting discussion with a group of other debut authors. The topic concerned how much a YA novelist should be expected and/or willing to curtail adult language and sexual situations in order to placate the publisher and to avoid the possibility of limiting potential sales in the school and library markets. The majority held that the author would be wise to concede to the publisher’s request and not to risk the rejection of such potentially lucrative buyers. This conclusion was thought especially wise for an author without an established record of sales. I wholeheartedly disagreed.

As a classroom teacher, I learned long ago that teenagers, in general, are far more intelligent, mature, and world-wise than that for which most adults give them credit. And if there is one sure way to offend them and to lose their willingness to take you seriously, it is to treat them as if they are children or as if they are incapable of handling the discussion or portrayal of mature situations. The same holds true for the YA novelist. The language is what the language is. For better or worse, many teenagers regularly employ curse words. When authors/editors use substitute words like “frickin” or “effing” or none at all, the language plays false and calls into question the author’s credibility in other areas of the portrayal of young adults’ lives. As for sex, some teens are having it and all of them are, at least, thinking about it. The YA novel is a perfect forum for the exposure and responsible exploration of the sexual issues being faced by teenagers. To avoid the presence of such issues is to ignore a major source of their pressures, anxiety, and even fantasy. To think that the inclusion of a sex scene in a YA novel will somehow transform them into sex-crazed nymphomaniacs is ignorant of the author and insulting to the reader.

With that said, I wholly oppose the gratuitous use of crude language and sexuality as a cheap trick of titillation employed by irresponsible and under-skilled writers. However, with the obvious concession to the editor’s role and the need for authorial compromise, I believe that determining what is the appropriate amount and manner of addressing these realities should be the responsibility of the writer, and his readership and the marketplace should be the ultimate judge of appropriateness and veracity. In general, one of the worst mistakes a writer can make is to write to the amorphous tastes and sensibilities of his/her imagined audience. A writer is always best served when he remains true to his vision and to his best understanding of the world and the characters he is attempting to create rather than constantly attempting to measure the ever-changing standard for what is deemed acceptable.

I am not ignorant of authors’ desire and need to sell books, especially for debut novelists. However, earning publication and respectable sales will be, at best, a pyrrhic victory when the story rings hollow and false and readers are offended and made unlikely to purchase any additional novels by such an author. Before I signed with a publisher, I determined that I would rather remain unpublished than to risk killing my career before it started by being made to assign my name to an inauthentic text. Therefore, it was imperative that, before I did sign with my publisher and before I began working with my editor, it was made clear that I would insist on maintaining what I considered an appropriate edginess regarding language and the inclusion of mature situations. Thankfully, my publisher and editor have shared my artistic vision and have allowed me great leeway. Soon, the market will decide the degree of my novel’s legitimacy and its worth.

In the end, I’ll live better with lackluster sales and the criticism of prudes than with pushing a sanitized version of reality on my readers.

The Author and Editor Relationship

Not long ago, I wrote an article on the “Author and Agent” relationship. Today, I read a great article by Janet Kobobel Grant of Books and Such Literary Agency on the Author and Publisher relationship (, which has inspired me to speak from my own experience regarding this all-so-important partnership between the author and his/her editor.

As with my agent, I determined early on that my relationship with my editor would be based on professionalism not personalities. It would be based on a business model not a friendship. I steeled myself very early in the process to consider my novel a sort of commodity. It was not my child (A metaphor, which, in my opinion, too many artists flippantly use to describe their relationship with their art.). I consider said comparison as inane and insulting as comparing sporting events to war. This emotional separation better enabled me to consider my work from my editor’s perspective, and it lessened the sting of editorial criticism. Not once did I take her suggestions as an affront to my writing, talent, and even much less to my person. After all, our fundamental goal was the same: to bring the most saleable book to market as possible. At times, this required me to compromise some of my artistic vision (including the cumulative deletion of more than forty pages of text), but I trusted that my editor knew her job and my target audience better than I do. I rarely questioned her suggestions, and when I did, I did so calmly with a reasoned defense of my resistance. In the end, we finished with a much better story than I delivered to my agent or she pitched to publishers.

In the nearly ten months of our working together, I have made initial contact with my agent on very few occasions. Whereas anxious authors tend to be consumed by their one sold novel, editors are juggling many, sometimes dozens of projects in various stages of completion. They do not obsess over our novels as we do, and they do not have time to be pestered with emails and phone calls from their writers. My attitude has always been, “If there’s anything I need to know, my editor will inform me at the appropriate time.” This has enabled me to resist sending unnecessary and annoying emails seeking reassurances and updates. I believe my editor greatly appreciates this patience and trust on my part. The last thing she or my agent wants to do is to babysit their authors.

The relationship I’ve described and have established for myself is probably not the one that aspiring authors imagine for themselves. However, I believe everyone is best served by remembering that publishing is a business. What I desire most from my editor is respect for my professionalism and for my artistry.

Book Review: Lauren Oliver’s “before i fall”

As a high school teacher and the author of Young Adult novels, I found Lauren Oliver’s before I fall to be beautifully written, emotionally poignant, and an accurate representation of high school life – especially as it is manifested in small town, public high schools. Oliver tells the story of a popular high school senior girl (Samantha), who dies in an automobile accident after leaving a house party. Her death is a “wake up” call that arrives too late, for she finds herself in a sort of Purgatory in which she must relive the tragic day of her death for seven straight days. During this time, she is forced to confront her heretofore unrealized status as a “mean girl.” Each new day allows her the opportunity to redeem herself and, perhaps, to earn her way out of her perpetual nightmare by bettering the lives of those she has alienated and tormented.

Oliver’s prose is polished and often lyrical. Her use of short paragraphs and copious dialogue pushes the narrative pace, as with each repeated day, Samantha draws closer to getting the last day (and her life) right. The nearly five hundred pages turn at a fast rate while seductively luring the reader into a love/hate relationship with Samantha. In the process, Oliver proves to have a keen ear for “teenspeak,” as the voices and conversations echo those I hear regularly in the halls of my school.

Much of the poignancy of the text emanates from Oliver’s frank treatment of the core themes of death and love in both of their many forms. She rightly reminds us that death comes in many forms and at all ages, and we ignore its inevitability and omnipresence at our own risk. No one, even teenagers, are beyond its reach. From this sobering fact the central theme emerges the central theme: Get your life in order, no matter what your age. Many types of love are also explored including friendship, romantic love, love between parents and children, love between siblings, maybe most importantly, the love of self. Although she’s very careful with her word choice and there are no “sex scenes,” Oliver does not shy away from addressing her teenage characters’ sexuality. She skillfully addresses this sensitive topic head-on and in a frank manner that neither romanticizes sex nor zealously condemns it.

If forced to nitpick, my only criticism might be the somewhat flat male characters; however, before I fall is about girls. The cardboard cutout boys serve to advance the plot and function as flashpoints for moments of self-awareness for the female characters. To fully explore the boys’ psyches and motivations would require another five hundred pages.

Although the novel breaks no new ground in YA fiction, it is more than a worthwhile read. Entertaining, educational, and enlightening, I recommend before I fall as a “must read” for young adult females and those (parents, teachers, young adult males) who would like to better understand and appreciate them.

My debut novel, So Shelly, is available for pre-order at all major online bookstores including, Amazon:; Barnes and Noble:; Borders:;  Books-A-Million:; and IndiBound:

YA Literature in Schools

As a high school English teacher, for years I regularly requisitioned the purchase of classic works of fiction and literary scholarship for purchase and placement in our school library. When the boxes of books arrived, it was like Christmas morning – if only for me. Soon after, the librarian catalogued each book and prominently displayed them on special shelving for new books. Sadly, there they would sit unchecked-out for weeks and months until they were finally shelved with the classics of days gone by to gather dust and yellow.

A few years ago, however, I began to notice an uptick in the number of novel-carrying students in the hallways and in my classroom. Few, if any, of the books they carried were what could be classified as “classics” nor were these books borrowed from our school library. Instead, they were written by authors with which I was unfamiliar, and they all featured book jackets clearly targeted for teens. That was my first exposure to Young Adult literature.

Curious, I began to read titles by several of these authors: Sarah Dessen, Laurie Halse Anderson, John Green, Chris Crutcher, Libba Bray, etc, and discovered a world of books that spoke to teenagers (and adults) in a way that the classics failed to establish relevance to their lives. As an experiment and in conjunction with the school librarian, we began to stock the shelves with titles by these authors and other YA writers. Since then, these books and those since purchased have been checked out with a regularity we had not previously witnessed. The lesson learned is obvious: young adults want to read, but they want to read books that speak to their experiences and that address the issues with which they are confronted in the modern world.

None of this is to say that canonical works shouldn’t be taught. In fact, they must be taught if we are to produce generations of disciplined, deep-thinking, and culturally-literate readers. However, I’m of the strong conviction that literary YA texts can and should be incorporated into school reading lists, especially in middle-grade and in summer reading lists. As a case in point, a school in my area has placed Daniel DeFoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle on the mandatory reading list for incoming freshmen. Are these important works of the Western canon? Absolutely. Are they texts which will inspire a love of reading in fourteen-year olds? I highly doubt it. In fact, the more likely result will be that these unfortunate readers will learn to associate reading with tedium rather than enlightenment or entertainment.

In visits to both my local public library and a large chain bookstore today, I was encouraged to notice that the Young Adult section in each had been recently expanded. Clearly, they both recognize and are making accommodations to meet young adults’ demand for relevant reading material. I believe that if our schools are sincerely interested with helping to graduate highly-literate, reading adults, they would be wise to make a more conscious and aggressive effort to expose middle and high school-aged students to the many and ever-growing list of first rate YA texts. The result will be students who are less reluctant and better prepared to tackle the classics as they advance to the higher levels of their education, and, if nothing else, a greater number of students who will have developed a love of reading for reading’s sake.

My debut novel, So Shelly, is available for pre-order at all major online bookstores including, Amazon:; Barnes and Noble:; Borders:;  Books-A-Million:; and IndiBound: