Launch party love

I feel incredibly blessed. Last night was the launch party for Second in Command. Friends, family, and coworkers came out to help celebrate and many others shared their well wishes throughout the day. I even met a few new people who heard about the event and wanted to check out my book.

I wanted to share my speech here for anyone who missed it because I think so much of writing is about the journeys we take and the people who help us along the way.

Thank you, Gina for that perfect introduction, and a huge thank you to Mary and the Burchfield Penney Art Center for hosting this event. Mary runs a book club here on the first Thursday of every month – it celebrates local Buffalo authors and it’s a wonderful way to learn about the history and culture of Buffalo and be exposed to some of our amazing talent. *(Note: the next book club is March 7)

At the risk of sounding like I’m at the Oscars (if I go too long feel free to cue the obnoxious music), there are a bunch of people I need to thank for getting me up here. My parents, for believing in me and traveling back from Florida into the icy grips of Buffalo to help celebrate and bake cookies. My mother in law, and my sister and her family for their support and encouragement, my kiddos for inspiration – this is the first thing I’ve written they could actually read (usually there’s a tiny bit of swearing in my books). And that handsome man in uniform who endures endless rounds of brainstorming, as well as my fits of jealously and self-doubt and all the other demons we writers face. He’s always there with practical advice like, “Just sit down and write.” As many of you know, he was active duty Navy for five years and now serves as a Reservist. We were apart for most of 2003 and I pulled on some of those memories when writing the book. But more about that in a bit.

I want to thank my friends and family – coworkers, both past and present, scout friends and writer friends – especially my Wednesday night and sometimes Sunday afternoon clan, members of our local children’s writers and illustrators (we’re known as BNCWI), Kristy my cheerleader, Jenn for our writing slash counseling sessions, Dee for introducing me to this crazy world of children’s books, my beta readers – CJ, Claudia, Carla, Gina, and Lilly. Sam, who designed this beautiful cover. Caitie, and everyone at West 44 who took a chance on my idea and helped make a lifelong dream come true. Everyone here today for coming out and supporting me. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Okay, cue the music. Onto the juicy part. How did I get here? No wait, that’s a Talking Heads song. Here’s the condensed version. When I was 16, I wrote a lot of angsty poetry. Like Leo, the main character in Second in Command, I was trying to figure out who I was and where I fit in the world. That’s the great thing about young adult literature. We can all relate to those feelings of identity and fitting in – they’re universal. And writing, for me, as a far from 16-year-old who still carries a few wounds on her heart, is a form of therapy. You present readers with a character who has a goal, give him/her obstacles, and then here’s the fun part – you help them figure out how to solve their problems. And unlike real life, there are revisions – you can change the course of events and your characters’ reactions, you get to be in control of their fate.

I get the YA part, you say, but what is a verse novel? A verse novel is a story told entirely through poetry. Poetry is beautiful because it strips everything down to raw emotion – much like the teenage experience. When Caitie told our critique group about her new imprint that would feature verse novels for struggling readers I thought, YES! Brilliant! I used to teach high school students with learning disabilities, and I remember how some of them struggled to find accessible literature that spoke to their experiences in a way that didn’t feel dumbed down. Poetry can be intimidating to some, yes, but it can also be freeing in a way because there’s all this white space on the page and the sentences are bare, the emotion is right there for the reader to see and feel.

I was excited to be part of something like that – and to be able to write poetry again. While that might frighten some writers, I immediately started to think about the different types of poems I could use and how I’d be able to play with language and structure. The clincher? One of the possible topics was deployed parents. Poetry, young adult book for struggling readers, about a military family. Around our house we call that the Trifecta.

So I created Leo, and I gave him a goal – he wants to earn Eagle Scout and become a police officer, and I gave him conflicts – Mom, who he admires and depends on to a degree, gets deployed and younger brother Jack quickly takes advantage of the situation by getting into trouble. It’s clear the brothers are close, but they fight – in the way brothers do. Not that I have any experience with that or anything. And Leo feels this strong sense of responsibility, especially when it comes to his siblings, but he’s also freaking out a little. And when I sat down to write I had to dredge up some difficult memories of my husband’s deployment. I wanted the story to be real for my readers. I had to tap into those feelings and remember the other families from that time. It was 2003 and everyone in our little military town knew someone who was deployed. Leo’s family was inspired by our next door neighbors. Mom left with the hospital ship. Dad commuted over an hour to work each day. The kids looked out for each other. It was sweet and heartbreaking, and they stayed with me for a long time.

I pitched my idea, and they liked it. Then came drafting, deadlines, revisions – all that good stuff.

Writing isn’t easy. It’s lonely. Sometimes it feels like I cut up my heart and put it onto the page. And when you’ve got a world of other things on your plate – work, family, volunteering – you squeeze it in whenever and wherever you can. I wrote most of the book on a picnic table inside Epic Sports Center while my kids were at soccer practice. But then there was a book. With my name on it. And that was pretty awesome. The most rewarding thing for me is the opportunity to tell a story people connect to. When someone reads a poem and thinks, yes, this speaks to how I’m feeling. That is really powerful.

There are moments in my life when I felt so, so lonely and I would turn to my journal, or I’d turn to a book and get lost in the story. Words have a weird way of healing. My hope is that you pick up this book and whether you’re part of a military family or you had someone in your life that you depended on and now they’re gone and you’ve gotta figure it out on your own – of if you’ve ever had to decide where your loyalty lies, you’ll pick up this book and you’ll feel a connection to the characters, you’ll feel understood, you’ll feel a little less alone.

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me, being authorly

Yeah, it was cold, and I’m a little crazy

Friday morning at work, the wind whistling angrily against our office windows, the following conversation took place:
Coworker: What are your weekend plans?
Me: Oh, I’m going camping.
Coworker: …
Me: Yup.
Coworker: It’s supposed to be really cold this weekend. Are you crazy?
Me: (briefly contemplates) Yup.

One fateful day, when oldest was in first grade, I walked past the cub scout recruitment table and asked for more information. I had been a girl scout through high school and thought scouts would be good for our boys. Oldest and I went to the information night, and he was immediately hooked.

Little did I know how that decision would affect my life these past six+ years. Both our boys are active in scouting and oldest hopes to earn the highest rank of Eagle. Many of our close friends are fellow scout parents, and scouting has seeped into my life in more ways than I could have imagined.

Writing, for example. Leo, the main character in SECOND IN COMMAND, is working toward Eagle and strives to live his life by the scout law. In my current WIP, the main character paved the way for girls in BSA (the new name for Boy Scouts of America as girls are now welcomed at all levels). Side note, I am all for an integrated scouting program – we are one of the only countries who segregate by gender. Personally I think we should merge the good things about girl scouts and boy scouts and create one unit, let’s call it something simple like, Scouts of America (why are they leaving the “B” in there I wonder?), and allow anyone to join.

Scouting has also pushed me out of my comfort zone on multiple occasions. Sometimes to an unpleasant end, like the time I rowed into the swimming dock. And sometimes to an uncomfortable end, like this past weekend when we camped in single digit temperatures (minus 20 with the wind chill). But I’ve learned in my wise old age that trying something you didn’t think you could do introduces you to some amazing experiences. A good friend tried Aerial fitness a few years back and is completely hooked — we tease her that she joined the circus, but the stuff she does is incredible.

When oldest started going on camp outs with scouts, hubby would take him. They would have fun and come back filthy, the clothes I packed still neatly folded in their bags. I’m pretty sure the kids stayed up until 2am and ate an obscene amount of cheese puffs on those trips. Then youngest joined the pack, and I decided to go on camp outs too, partly because I wanted to have an extra set of hands/eyes on our kiddos, and partly because I didn’t want to be left out. I love camping and nature. I don’t mind outdoor bathrooms (although I will say after this weekend that you haven’t truly lived until you’ve experienced sub zero winds under the doors of a latrine) or getting dirty and going without makeup, running water, etc.

Problem: I didn’t exactly want to be the only mom there. The party crasher who makes her kids brush their teeth, go to bed before midnight, and change their underwear. Thankfully one of the other moms joined me on my first camp out, and we’ve gone together to almost all of them since. And now there are lots of moms who come out, and they bring disinfecting wipes for the latrine and healthy snacks, and I love that we watch out for each other. Some of them have become my closest friends.

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Camp moms are hardcore*

Just as scouting has opened up new ideas and opportunities for my boys, it has given me the chance to connect to nature, to other people, and to my own strengths. I joined the committee and developed my leadership skills. I’ve learned how to deal with challenging situations. I’ve been able to perform for an audience (my rendition of “Have you ever seen a penguin drinking tea” is killer) which fuels the attention seeking side of my introverted personality.

I guess my point is this: you never know when an opportunity is going to change the course of your life. Stay open to new things. I volunteered to co-lead an activity at my son’s school and met my very first writer friend. She led me into a world of other writers which eventually led to the opportunity to write SECOND IN COMMAND. Sometimes when something new comes our way our first instinct is to say no, our plate is full enough already, thank you. But the thing you are eager to say no to might just be the thing that changes your life for the better.

*It was 4 degrees out when we took this picture.

Weekend retreat

The idea of coming together with other writers — some friends, some strangers — for an entire weekend away from the stressful realities of life felt both exhilarating and terrifying. It is something I need: space to think, to read, to write, without distractions and in a place that promised inspiring scenery. At home, I try to carve out time to write but there is always something else that pulls at my attention. The house, the cat, the never ending list of things I should be doing. At a retreat, there will be peer pressure. I will be forced to sit and write.

I will also be anxious. Anxious about the unknown, the societal expectations of such things, the way my brain doesn’t always filter what exits my mouth. The pressure to produce something wonderful, something that will make the trip worthwhile.

I drove down with a local friend, and hurray, we only had to turn around once. There were five other women there, three I know from the Pennwriters conference and two I met upon arrival. Everyone was nice. Our porch had a view of a beautiful lake, and we sat and enjoyed complimentary cottage wine.

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Sunset wine. Photo inspired by my Lake O cottage neighbor, Phil

We shared a wonderful meal together. Eventually, I heard the nag in my head asking for a break. People don’t always believe I’m an introvert. They see me stand in front of crowds, comfortable in theatrical performance. That’s the thing: it’s theater. It’s me putting on another persona, someone confident and in control of her speech and surroundings. It’s not small talk with others, deciding what to reveal about who I am and what I believe. I’d rather tell stories, sing repeat after me songs off-key, explain the way something works. Otherwise I’ll just listen if that’s okay.

And it usually is. For a while. Then I need to be alone and in the quiet. And the great thing about other writers is that they get that, they understand. Most of us are introverted or at least need to go into that space of stillness and quiet in order to tune into the stories in our heads.

I slept, more or less. As much as one can in a strange place with unusual noises (like a toilet grinder that sounded like an angry monster) and light coming in from under the doorway. I missed the sound of my husband’s breath and the feel of a cat at my feet. It was lonely. But in the morning we woke to coffee and pumpkin bread and the stillness of the lake. The air was cold and full of fall. I wrote, I read, I took a walk in the woods with my friend. We climbed into a tree stand and talked to chipmunks. I felt relaxed for the first time in weeks.

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Findley Lake

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Took a lovely hike just beyond this outhouse

We gathered in the common area and wrote, a collective of creative energy. I worried about my story but tried to let the words flow without judgement. When we weren’t writing, we talked and laughed and ate amazing food. A group of us went on a mini adventure and embraced the idea of taking the time to do what makes you happy. I am thankful for that time, for the beautiful place, for a family that supports my passion and gives me space to pursue it.

I am thankful for other writers who are not afraid to share in their vulnerability. We are all on our own journeys, yet we are all committed to words, and I love how that bonds us. Love that I can spend the weekend with people other than my family and feel safe and comfortable.

Bonus: amazing food

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Pasta with pumpkin sauce, sauted mushrooms and onions, ratatouille with vegan mozzarella, and homemade herb focaccia. YUM.

Summer book report

Ah, the lazy days of summer, the perfect time to curl up in the sun on your favorite lounge chair and get lost in the pages of a good book. I’ll admit there weren’t nearly enough of those moments this past summer, but I managed to devour a handful of delicious reads. Here are a few of my faves:

Pax by Sarah Pennypacker
Youngest and I began this audio book on a nearly hour long trip to one of his soccer games. We were immediately hooked. Normally I’d continue listening alone, but he felt strongly that I wait for him to be in the car so that we could listen together. It killed me, but I love my boy and love that we had something to share. After we finished, he asked to borrow the CDs so that he could play them in his bedroom before he went to sleep. Hopefully there weren’t subliminal messages contained within because I’m relatively certain he listened to the book another four or five times. Pax tells the story of a boy and his abandoned fox, and it is beautiful and heartbreaking. I strongly recommend it for children (those able handle the painful themes of war, death, and loss) and adults alike.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
Another excellent audio book, this one listened to during my work commute. It is a must for bibliophiles and those who enjoy rich character development. Somewhat of a spoiler alert (although the reason I stumbled upon this book in the first place) — there is an adoption story line that I felt the author handled well. I’m always on the lookout for books that take on foster care and adoption from a somewhat unique perspective, books that aren’t simply about a child searching for his/her birth parents but one that embraces the uniqueness of a family created not out of blood.

I’ve renewed my commitment to reading more with my boys at bedtime. Sometimes when life gets crazy we let that slip, but it is such a wonderful time to bond and explore literature together, especially with my twelve-year-old, who has entered the “Don’t mind me I’m just going to lock myself in my bedroom and watch YouTube videos all night” phase. We finished Postcards from Venice by the fabulous Dee Romito. It is a follow-up (but can be read alone) to her debut, The BFF Bucket List and equally sweet. Then we read one of my childhood favorites, and a must read for all those in the throes of adolescence, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. We laughed until our sides hurt at the part, “You must, you must…” (especially after I told him that yes, my sister taught me that chant when I was his age and I may have believed it could work. It didn’t. Also, if you have no idea what I’m talking about, well, then I guess you need to go read the book.)

Youngest and I read the third book in Todd McClimans’ American Epochs series, A Time to Heal. I recommend the series for elementary-middle schoolers who enjoy history and adventure. Then we read Project Mulberry by Linda Sue Park and are now about halfway through White Fang by Jack London. He saw the preview for a movie version on Netflix and we decided to read the book first (because you should ALWAYS read the book first). I’ve never read it before and perhaps should have given pause when I found it in the YA section of the library instead of juvenile. It is a wonderfully crafted book, but the language is a bit high for him and the content rather intense. We stop after particularly rough scenes to discuss them, and I’ve been using it as a way to teach difficult vocabulary in context as well as reading comprehension. Oh, the teacher in me.

A few other recommendations from my summer reading pile:

The Girl Before by Rena Olsen. Had a very Lifetime TV movie feel and was the perfect escape book for a day at the lake. (Warning: it does deal with a disturbing concept that may be difficult for some readers)

Every Little Bad Idea by Caitie McKay. Debut verse novel by my friend and editor. A wonderful book aimed at struggling readers that would appeal to teens experiencing first love (or those of us who remember our first love!)

If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo. Very well done book about a trans-girl trying to find her place.

I am still over two years behind on my TBR list, a list that is constantly growing because there are so many wonderful books out there! Fall is the only time of year when we have a reprieve from soccer, but scouts is in full swing, and hubby and I are both very active on the committee. Translation: time I could be reading and/or writing is spent organizing spreadsheets, planning activities, and sending emails. Alas, I love being involved in my sons’ lives and know that it will all end one day when they leave the nest.

(Of course I totally plan on being like the mom in I’ll Love You Forever and sneaking into their houses to read to them.)