Authors & Inspirations: Sandi Van

Today on the blog I’m thrilled to have my friend and fellow Buffalonian, Sandi Van! Her debut YA verse novel, Second in Command, was released last month from West 44 Books. A brief synopsis of the book is below. Welcome, Sandi!

Sixteen-year-old Leo dreams of becoming an Eagle Scout and, someday, a police officer. He makes sure to always do the right thing and be responsible. With his mom deployed and his dad constantly working, Leo is often left in charge of his two younger siblings. Then Leo’s brother, Jack, gets caught up in a dangerous plot that rocks the community. Can Leo keep his promise to stand by his brother no matter what, or will he stand on the side of justice?

 

Do you listen to music while you write? Why or why not?

Yes, I usually listen to music while I write, especially if I’m someplace noisy like a coffee shop or indoor soccer center. It helps me focus. It can also be great if I’m trying to create a certain mood, like if I have to write a heartbreaking scene I’ll loop a really sad song on repeat.

If you do listen to music while writing, share a few songs on your current writing playlist:

Normally I’ll chose a particular artist or genre to stream depending on my mood or the mood of the story. If there’s no wifi available, I’m stuck playing whatever is saved on my laptop, which is mostly techno and electronica songs. I love the beat and energy. Two of my favorites are My Way by Calvin Harris and The Greatest by Sia. I did create a playlist for Second in Command: https://open.spotify.com/user/jcix7v3qr7zd8dhc856jummqb/playlist/2b92iRMAar9paHXFwBAlxx?si=ax1FNX6MR0WYMf7g1gHNSw

What band is on your bucket list to see live?

James. I regret not seeing them live when they were big in the US. They only tour in the UK now it seems, although I did see a date in Greece this summer. That would be a fun trip. I watch their concerts on YouTube sometimes, and Tim Booth is an amazing performer. Unfortunately, my husband hates live music, so we don’t go to many shows. I’m going to Mumford and Sons with some friends in March though, and I’m really excited about that.

What TV shows are you loving lately?

I’m a sucker for This is Us. The writing is beautiful and I have yet to make it through an episode without crying. I also loved Sex Education on Netflix. So smart and funny.

What are your all-time favorite movies?

Real Genius. The Goonies. The Princess Bride. Better off Dead. Everything by John Hughes. Basically, I love 80’s movies.

You can go on a two-week, all-expenses paid writing retreat to the location of your choice. Where would you go, and why?

I used to live on the west coast and we took a road trip down to Oregon and hiked some of the waterfalls off the Columbia River. It was incredibly beautiful and inspiring. I’d love to rent a cabin out there somewhere with a view of a waterfall out my window. Get up in the morning, go for a hike, then come back and write.

What’s your favorite book you’ve read recently?

My son and I read Pax by Sara Pennypacker. It tore me apart; it was so beautiful and sad. I love books like that. My son adored it as well – he’s listened to the audiobook more times than I can count.

What are your very favorite kinds of scenes to write?

Oh, the heart wrenchingly sad ones. They are not easy to write, but I tend to lose myself in them completely and really feel connected to my characters after we’ve gone through a difficult moment together. They are emotionally draining but also very therapeutic.

When you need to recharge your batteries/refill the well as a writer, what forms of media do you most often turn to?

Books. The language of a well written story will often kick start my creative flow. If I’m stuck in a rut, getting into nature or performing menial tasks (like painting a room or cleaning windows) will often help as well.

If you could have a drink/cup of coffee/beverage of choice with any three people alive in the world right now, who would you pick?

First I want to say that if it was someone no longer alive it would be Shirley Jackson. Because she wrote some crazy stuff and I’d love to have been able to pick her brain. Margaret Atwood for sure, and Emma Watson. They are both amazing, smart, trail blazing women and I am totally in love with listening to them talk.

Let us know what’s coming up next for you: new books, new projects; what are you working on?

I’ve been going back and forth between two stories lately. One is an adult novel about a young woman who gets stuck in a snow storm and her experience on the road helps her deal with the guilt of her brother’s death. The other is a major revision to a previously finished novel; that one is YA and it’s about a girl whose father gets deployed during Desert Storm and she’s on a quest to find her mother. I recently had an idea for some changes and am excited to try and weave those into the manuscript.

 

Sandi Van is a writer, counselor, and former special education teacher from Buffalo, NY. Her nonfiction piece, “Labor and Delivery” was featured in Adoptive Families Magazine and her poetry won recognition in the Elmira Star-Gazette and the PennWriters’ In Other Words contest. Sandi is also a proud Navy wife. Her debut verse novel, Second in Command, was inspired by and dedicated to military families facing deployment.

Announcing My Fourth Book, IN THE SHADOW OF SAINTS!

I know I’ve been teasing book 4 quite a bit on social media, so I am SO THRILLED to finally be able to tell you ALL about it! My fourth novel, entitled In the Shadow of Saints, will be coming in Winter 2020 from St. Martin’s Griffin!

Of course, I was always going to write a book about the Borgias 🙂 They’ve been my favorite historical family since I first stumbled on a novel about them as a teenager. They’re often referred to as Italy’s first crime family, and while historically that isn’t really technically true, their story does indeed have all the things that such a moniker suggests: scandal, corruption, politics, shady dealings, wealth, sex, violence, power, murder. It’s rich ground for any storyteller, and I am certainly not the first nor the last to cover it.

My novel, though, does take a bit of a different perspective on the infamous Borgia family. It’s told in alternating points of view, by two different characters: one being Cesare Borgia, the eldest of Rodrigo Borgia’s children, and the second being Maddalena Moretti, a maid who works for the family and is a fictional character of my own invention. My agent has been calling this my “upstairs/downstairs” look at the Borgias, and it is very much that. However, there are several reasons I chose to tell this story from two points of view, and from the points of view of these two characters in particular.

Cesare Borgia (pronounced CHEH-sah-reh – “ce” in Italian is pronounced like “che” in English; think “cello”) is the member of the Borgia family who has always fascinated me the most – perhaps because he was the most brilliant, manipulative, and wicked of the bunch. Most of the novels about the Borgias that I’m aware of usually focus on Lucrezia, as the only sister and most unfairly maligned member of the family. I wanted to really dig into Cesare as a character because, after all, villains don’t tend to start out as villains – they become so over time. I’ve been thinking of Cesare’s portion of this book as his villain origin story, and it was both a lot of fun to write a baddie and at the same time could get rather dark. I definitely drew inspiration from Walter White of Breaking Bad fame when working out Cesare’s character arc: I wanted him to be someone readers would sympathize with and root for in the beginning, then have that sympathy slowly start to erode over the course of the story as his actions become increasingly more awful. It was a challenge that I set myself, and one I embraced eagerly. I’m very pleased with how his character turned out. You all will have to let me know whether I’ve succeeded in my aims!

I had always wanted to write from Cesare’s point of view, but Maddalena’s perspective came about in something of an interesting way. I had written a few chapters from Cesare’s point of view that I showed to my agent at various times – I had actually initially anticipated this being my second book, then my third book (obviously, that didn’t happen). Each time she saw it, she liked what I had so far, but felt like something was missing, and that this project wasn’t quite ready. I agreed with her but didn’t really know where else to go with it, so it continued to sit on the back burner.

Fast forward to the fall of 2016. I had just handed in The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel to my editor and was working on drafting something new. You may have seen me refer to me “sexy opera book” on social media; well, that’s what I was writing, and I was having a blast. It was a book that I was just having a lot of fun writing, and at that point I anticipated that it would be my fourth book, as it was going really well.

Then the 2016 U.S. presidential election happened, and suddenly a fun, sexy book didn’t seem like the thing I should be writing, or the thing I wanted to write just then. I wanted to dig into something darker, something about power and corruption. It seemed like the best way for me to explore all that was to return to the Borgias book. And suddenly I found the missing piece, which had actually been there all along. In college I’d written a short story from the point of view of a maid who becomes involved with Cesare Borgia, and this, I realized, needed to be my second POV in the novel. I needed an outside perspective on this infamous family, someone who was of a completely different socioeconomic class than they, someone who could get entangled with and dragged into their power struggle, so that we might see how an everyday person could be harmed and compromised by the actions of the powerful and also by their potential proximity to that power. It all felt like something important, exciting, relevant, challenging, and interesting to explore.

So I added Maddalena’s POV, and it really was what the book had needed all along. Of course, that didn’t make any of it easier to write. Maddalena is by far the main character who has given me the most difficulty to date: it took me a long time and many rounds of revisions to really get a handle on her voice, to really get to the heart of who she was. She slowly revealed herself to me bit by bit, and as a result she’s a character that I’m really proud of. I hope you all love her like I do.

This is by far the most ambitious book I’ve written to date – I blogged a bit about getting started with it in this post. There were lots of times it felt like it was going to eat me alive. There was so much history to balance, so many tangled politics to keep in mind, dates and timelines to keep straight, lots of plot threads and character arcs to flesh out and bring to completion. I made and wrote from an outline for the first time, which I blogged about in this post.

The title has been another struggle – it had several just on my end before I ever handed it in to my editor, and then she and I changed it a few more times. We had a big Google doc going of title ideas, and would throw them back and forth to each other, but it took us MONTHS to find one we both liked and felt fit well and that the marketing/sales folks at St. Martin’s would go for. I’ve never had this kind of problem with a title before – even if I didn’t have the final title right off the bat, I usually found it without too much trouble – and boy, was it a challenge. This is such a big, sprawling book that it felt difficult to find just one title that encompassed everything, and that fit with both Maddalena and Cesare’s very different characters. I really love In the Shadow of Saints, though – ironically it was a title I first thought of a while ago, but it took me a while to see that it was the best one. I think it’s fitting and contains different layers of meaning that will inform the story as one reads on.

As difficult as writing this book was at times, though, I really did love doing it. I got to write about political dealings (shady and otherwise), a fascinating and large cast of complex characters, war and negotiations, murder, the glory and filth of Renaissance Rome, and a lot of drama that actually happened. So much of that was fun because a lot of it was new for me (especially the politics – I’ve always wanted to write a book that was very “let us sit in this room and plot politics”, and I’ve done it!). And, of course, I got to write about my favorite historical family, and my favorite era of history. I just love writing about Renaissance Italy, and I can promise you that I’m not done doing so.

Because of the many challenges of this book, in some ways perhaps it’s the one I’m most proud of. It’s something different, and it’s definitely my darkest book so far. It’s taken a lot of revision and edits and smoothing over of rough edges, but it is finally the book I always wanted it to be, the book I always knew it could be. A lot of credit goes to my editor as well, for her amazing, spot-on notes and feedback, and always being there for me to bounce ideas off of as I revised. It’s been such an amazing feeling, to keep working at it and see it improve each day. I really believe it’s my best book so far. And I can’t wait for all of you to read it.

As soon as I have a release date, cover, etc., I will be sure to share it all here!

 

Authors & Inspirations: Chanel Cleeton

Welcome to my first Authors & Inspirations post of 2019! To kick off the new year, I’m thrilled to have historical fiction author Chanel Cleeton. Chanel’s most recent novel, the USA Today bestselling Next Year in Havana, was Reese Witherspoon’s Book Club pick for July 2018. I was honored to have given a blurb to this stunning and powerful dual timeline novel, which follows the story of a Cuban woman whose wealthy family is forced to flee during the revolution, and her granddaughter who returns to Havana years later. Cleeton’s upcoming novel, When We Left Cuba (which I also loved!), continues the story of the Perez family in the aftermath of the revolution, and will be out on April 9, 2019. Welcome to the blog, Chanel!

 

Do you listen to music while you write? Why or why not?

Yes, music is a huge part of my writing process. I usually create playlists that fit the mood/tone of the book I’m working on and I tend to listen to those on repeat. I usually share my playlists on Spotify leading up to a book’s release. For example, when I was writing Next Year in Havana I listened to a lot of Buena Vista Social Club.

If you do listen to music while writing, share a few songs on your current writing playlist:

I just turned in a book to my editor and while I was working on it, I listened to Lord Huron’s The Night We Met, Falling Water by Peter Oren, If We Were Vampires by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, River by Leon Bridges, and Back to Autumn by Tall Heights.

What was the last live concert you attended?

I was just in Miami a few weeks ago and I saw Marc Anthony in concert. My father had never seen him perform live and he really wanted to go so I tagged along.

What are your all-time favorite TV shows?

That’s a tough one! Gossip Girl, Corazón Salvaje (the original version), Seinfeld, Veronica Mars, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, Stranger Things, Jane the Virgin, Sex and the City, One Day at a Time, The Nanny, Frasier, Sons of Anarchy, and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart are some of my favorites.

What TV shows are you loving lately?

I’ve really enjoyed Glow, Jane the Virgin, One Day at a Time, Stranger Things, Peaky Blinders, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Making a Murderer, and Younger. I also really loved the sadly now cancelled Good Girls Revolt which was amazing! I also watch all of the Real Housewives franchises.

Do you ever draw on visual art in your work?

Photography is really helpful to me and I spend a lot of time looking at photos of the places and from the time periods I’m writing about.

Has a place you’ve traveled ever inspired you in your writing?

Definitely! I draw a lot from my real-life experiences. For example, I have a series set in London at an international university that was inspired by my own time at university.

You can go on a two-week, all-expenses paid writing retreat to the location of your choice. Where would you go, and why?

I’d probably go to Koh Samui, Thailand. I spent a week there a few years ago and it was one of the most beautiful and relaxing places I’ve ever been.

What authors have most inspired you in your own work?

There are so many. Some of my favorites include Carlos Eire, Beatriz Williams, Tana French, Rhys Bowen, Judith McNaught, Nora Roberts, Ahdaf Soueif, Elizabeth Kostova, Anita Shreve, Sophie Kinsella, and Jane Austen.

What was the last book you read?

I just finished China Rich Girlfriend by Kevin Kwan and dove immediately into the last book in the trilogy, Rich People Problems. They’re the ultimate binge books and my favorite series I’ve read this year.

What are your very favorite kinds of scenes to write?

I enjoy writing scenes that are high-emotion where I really learn what my characters are made of. They’re often a bit draining to work on, but I find that when I pull back the layers on my characters I connect to them the most.

When you need to recharge your batteries/refill the well as a writer, what forms of media do you most often turn to?

I watch a fair amount of television, and looking at storytelling from a slightly different perspective both refills the well and often inspires me. I also read nightly and it recharges me and gets me in the mood to write.

What artistic/creative talents do you have outside of writing?

I’m not sure how talented I am, but I really enjoy interior decorating which has been sort of a surprising development in the past few years. I’ve also always been drawn to fashion. Handbags are my weakness 🙂

Let us know what’s coming up next for you: new books, new projects; what are you working on?

My next release is When We Left Cuba, which will release on April 9, 2019. It’s set in Palm Beach in the 1960s and highlights the tumultuous Cuban-American relations of the time period including events like the Bay of Pigs, Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy assassination, and the many assassination attempts on Fidel Castro’s life.

I just finished drafting my 2020 release, tentatively titled Our Side of Paradise, which is set in the Florida Keys in the 1930s and is centered on the lives of three heroines (one of the heroines is related to the Perez family from Next Year in Havana and When We Left Cuba) whose paths cross on one fateful weekend in September.

I’m currently researching a book that I will begin drafting soon which will release in 2021. The working title is The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba and it’s set during the Gilded Age and the New York newspaper wars between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, and features a real-life Cuban heroine who was an infamous revolutionary in her time.

 

Chanel Cleeton is the USA Today bestselling author of Reese Witherspoon Book Club pick Next Year in Havana. Originally from Florida, Chanel grew up on stories of her family’s exodus from Cuba following the events of the Cuban Revolution. Her passion for politics and history continued during her years spent studying in England where she earned a bachelor’s degree in International Relations from Richmond, The American International University in London and a master’s degree in Global Politics from the London School of Economics & Political Science. Chanel also received her Juris Doctor from the University of South Carolina School of Law. She loves to travel and has lived in the Caribbean, Europe, and Asia.

Authors & Inspirations: Caitie McKay

My second Authors & Inspirations interview is with young adult author Caitie McKay. Caitie and I go waaaaayy back – we first met in college, in our first creative writing class (which was taught by the awesome young adult author Janet McNally). We liked each other’s work immediately as we read it for workshop, and quickly became friends. We’ve stayed friends and have continued beta reading each other’s work since!

Caitie’s debut novel, a young adult novel in verse entitled Every Little Bad Idea, came out this summer. It’s a beautiful, gorgeously written story about the pains of growing up, falling in love, and deciding what you want your life to be. I’m thrilled to have Caitie on the blog today. Welcome!

 

Do you listen to music while you write? Why or why not?

Not usually! I can’t concentrate on anything if a song has lyrics. Sometimes I listen to something instrumental, though.

Are there any musicians who have had a big impact on your work?

Take all the angst and real-ness of early 2000s Avril Lavigne and make it into a book…that’s all I aspire to do. One of my books was based around the AMERICAN IDIOT album from Green Day and another was heavily influenced by the Beatles.

What was the last live concert you attended?

Judah and the Lion!

What’s the farthest you’ve ever traveled for a concert?

I drove to Pittsburgh to see the Mountain Goats. WORTH IT.

Share some of your favorite song lyrics:

And oh my God, what a world you have made here

What a terrible world, what a beautiful world

What a world you have made here

– “12/17/12” by The Decemberists

Your favorite band is going to write a song based on one of your books. What band is it, and what should the song be about?

I have so many favorite bands, but I’d want the Alabama Shakes to write a song about my book EVERY LITTLE BAD IDEA. The song would be about leaving behind the people who put you down, and finding your inner badass.

What band is on your bucket list to see live?

Oh man, don’t judge me…the Spice Girls.

You are magically going to be granted the ability to be a virtuoso on one instrument. Which do you pick?

Piano! I love watching people own the piano. I took lessons, but that left hand never truly learned to keep up…

What are your all-time favorite TV shows?

Gilmore Girls, Parks and Recreation, The Office, Call the Midwife

What TV shows are you loving lately?

I’m obsessed with the Masterpiece Theater show Poldark. I also just watched all of Great News. I think that show was written about my mother and me.

Is there a TV show that’s had an impact on you as a writer?

I aspire to write the wit, quirk, and heart of Gilmore Girls.

If you got the opportunity to write an episode for one show (past or present) what would it be?

Anything Tina Fey has been involved in—30 Rock, Great News, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt—because the scripts are just perfectly hilarious and ridiculous.

If Netflix were to option one of your books for a TV series, which book would you choose, and who would play your main characters?

Well, I only have one book out, so I’d have to go with…EVERY LITTLE BAD IDEA! I’d want the main character, Skyler, to be played by teenage Gina Rodriguez (love her) and Cole to be played by a young Jonathan Rhys Myers.

What are your all-time favorite movies?

I watch the movie ABOUT TIME multiple times a year. Same with AWAY WE GO. And I’m a sucker for anything Nora Ephron.

Who are your favorite actors/actresses?

Meryl Streep forever. I also LOVE Kate McKinnon in everything she does.

Is there a movie that’s had a big impact on you as a writer?

ABOUT TIME has had a huge impact on me as a person. It’s taught me to live each day mindfully and find the extraordinary in the ordinary. WHEN HARRY MET SALLY has impacted me as a writer because I’m just in awe of the script, and will try my whole life to create something so wonderfully complex and terribly relatable.

Are you a theatregoer? If so, what was the last play/musical you saw?

I love live theater but haven’t been in a very long time. However…I’m going to HAMILTON in December!!!

What are your top five favorite musicals?

Hamilton

Fiddler on the Roof

Sound of Music

Cabaret

Sweeney Todd

What authors have most inspired you in your own work?

I’d have to say Sarah Dessen, Deb Caletti, and Ellen Hopkins. Sarah Dessen and Deb Caletti write such beautiful, honest books about what it is to fall in love for the first time. And Ellen Hopkins puts the teenage experience to sharp, edgy verse poetry.

Are there any visual artists you’re a big fan of?

I love Banksy. I love the idea of art making a statement. I love the idea of art being anonymous. I love the idea of art existing not only in a museum, but on the street.

Do you ever draw on visual art in your work?

In one of my books (which was sadly never published), the main character is a street chalk artist. For that book, I went to a chalk art festival and was completely blown away by the skill of the artists. And the idea that you can make something beautiful, and let go of it when the rain comes.

Has a place you’ve traveled ever inspired you in your writing?

I always set my books in a city like Buffalo (where I live). But many places have inspired parts of my books—Chicago, Northern California, Ireland—if not in setting, then in energy or anecdotes of adventures I had there.

You can go on a two-week, all-expenses paid writing retreat to the location of your choice. Where would you go, and why?

Always Ireland. I’ve been there three times and I never get tired of it. The ground itself just holds so much creative energy—you can’t help but feel inspired.

Are you a podcast listener? If so, what are some of your favorite podcasts?

I’m more of an audio book person! However, I do love GETTING CURIOUS WITH JONATHAN VAN NESS. He can narrate my life, thanks.

What was the last book you read?

The last book I read was ZEN AND GONE by Emily France. The last book I listened to was ARISTOTLE AND DANTE DISCOVER THE SECRETS OF THE UNIVERSE. Woah, that book just blew me away.

What’s your favorite book you’ve read recently?

I loved the book EBB AND FLOW by Heather Smith and MISSING MIKE by Shari Green. They are both gorgeous middle grade novels in verse, and so perfectly written.

What’s a book you’ve loved that you feel more people should be talking about?

There are just so many good verse novels out there that need attention. LONG WAY DOWN by Jason Reynolds, THE POET X by Elizabeth Acevedo, THE CROSSOVER by Kwame Alexander.

What are your very favorite kinds of scenes to write?

I love scenes where characters first meet. There’s so much to talk about—first impressions, awkward dialogue, body language. There’s so much possibility there.

When you need to recharge your batteries/refill the well as a writer, what forms of media do you most often turn to?

I watch a lot of Masterpiece Theater! Nothing like a British period drama to take me out of my world for a little while.

What artistic/creative talents do you have outside of writing?

I have very limited painting talent, but I still love to do it. I also play guitar and sing (but just for fun!).

What artistic/creative talent do you wish you had?

When I was in high school and college, I wrote a ton of songs. I wish I’d kept writing songs, and gotten better at them. I’ve just never gotten over my stage fright!

If you could have a drink with any three people alive in the world right now, who would you pick?

Lin-Manuel Miranda, Tina Fey, and Sarah Dessen.

Let us know what’s coming up next for you: new books, new projects; what are you working on?

Right now, I’m actually working on multiple projects—a young adult verse novel, a young adult prose novel, and a middle grade verse novel. I’m really feeling middle grade lately!

 

Find out more about Caitie and her work at her website!

Authors & Inspirations: Dee Romito

I’m very excited to announce my new interview series, Authors & Inspirations! In it, I’ll be posting interviews with authors from all different genres in which I ask about the art and media that they enjoy and that inspires them in their work. As an author, I love talking about my favorite art and artists, and love hearing other creators talk about their inspirations as well, so I thought this would be a fun series – hopefully for both readers and for the authors I interview. Enjoy!

My first interview is with middle grade and picture book author, Dee Romito. Dee and I became friends a few years ago, and I just adore her books – they’re so fun to read but always have an inspiring message at their heart, whether you’re a kid or an adult! Her most recent release, the non-fiction picture book Pies from Nowhere: How Georgia Gilmore Sustained the Montogomery Bus Boycott, tells the story of an unsung hero of the Civil Rights movement, and appropriately enough released on Election Day this month. Welcome, Dee!

Do you listen to music while you write? Why or why not?

Not usually. My preference is a quiet writing space, and when I’m out somewhere writing I can usually block out the noises around me. If it’s really loud, I might listen to classical or Top 40 type songs.

What was the last live concert you attended?

My kids earned tickets for our local “Kiss the Summer Hello” concert with various artists, including Alessia Cara. Before that, I think it was Garth Brooks. His concerts are the BEST.

You are magically going to be granted the ability to be a virtuoso on one instrument. Which do you pick?

Piano. I love watching people play piano, and those fast, hitting-lots-of-keys songs are incredible!

What are your all-time favorite TV shows?

Friends, Seinfeld, 24, White Collar.

What TV shows are you loving lately?

This is Us! And the last season of The Big Bang Theory. I love sitcoms.

Is there a TV show that’s had an impact on you as a writer?

Not necessarily a specific show, but TV shows in general have for sure. I find that as a writer I often don’t just watch shows, I study them. Even my husband will say, “Ooh, they wouldn’t have shown that if it’s not going to be important later!”

I once binge watched the series Hart of Dixie and when I finished the four seasons, I started it all over again. I knew I loved it, but I wanted to figure out why I loved it so much. (It was the quirky characters and their friendships!)

If you got the opportunity to write an episode for one show (past or present) what would it be?

Ooh, this is a tough one. I’d pick Friends or Seinfeld except I don’t think I could do them justice. Maybe Parenthood or Party of Five. I really loved those shows because of the complicated relationships between the characters.

If Netflix were to option one of your books for a TV series, which book would you choose, and who would play your main characters?

The BFF Bucket List would probably best lend itself to a TV series. But if I get to cast the main characters, let’s go with No Place Like Home so I can have George Clooney or Josh Duhamel play the dad. 😉

What are your all-time favorite movies?

The answer to this has always been Grease and Field of Dreams, but I have now officially added The Greatest Showman to that list. LOVE it.

Who are your favorite actors/actresses?

Anyone who follows me online knows I have a massive crush on Hugh Jackman. So much so that a friend recently sent me a cardboard cutout of him. (Okay, I might also have been sent a cutout of Josh Duhamel.

Is there a movie that’s had a big impact on you as a writer?

I got the idea for No Place Like Home while watching the movie Up in the Air. It’s about a guy who travels all the time for work and I wondered, “Could you do that if you had kids?” From that, the seed for a middle grade book idea was born.

Has a place you’ve traveled ever inspired you in your writing?

Definitely. I have always loved to travel. Several of my books have travel themes and take place in cities I’ve been to. I have one manuscript I got the idea for while sitting in Trafalgar Square in London (Someday I’ll get back to working on that one!). Of course, sometimes places I haven’t been to inspire me too. My most recent book, Postcards from Venice, takes place in Venice, Italy where I have yet to venture to.

You can go on a two-week, all-expenses paid writing retreat to the location of your choice. Where would you go, and why?

Santorini, Greece. I have always wanted to go there and OH MY GOODNESS it’s beautiful.

Are you a podcast listener? If so, what are some of your favorite podcasts?

I wasn’t until this past year, but now I really enjoy them. My favorite kidlit podcast is Literaticast and my favorite just for fun is Dax Shepard’s Arm Chair Expert. Although don’t listen to it with kids in the car!

What’s your favorite book you’ve read recently?

I read a lot of picture books, especially nonfiction and biography. I love learning about people in history. One of my recent favorites is A Lady Has the Floor by Kate Hannigan about Belva Lockwood–an amazing woman I didn’t know about!

What are your very favorite kinds of scenes to write?

I like writing fun scenes that make me laugh, but I also like the ones that tug at the heart strings and make you feel the character’s emotions. Those are usually the hardest to write, but they’re so important to a story.

When you need to recharge your batteries/refill the well as a writer, what forms of media do you most often turn to?

I’m supposed to say books or music to sound official as a writer, I know, but my real answer is TV. I’m very visual, so TV shows and movies are my ultimate comfort spot when I need to recharge.

What artistic/creative talent do you wish you had?

Oh how I’d love to be an illustrator! But there are so many talented illustrators out there, it’s actually more fun to see what they do with the books.

If you could have a drink with any three people alive in the world right now, who would you pick?

Well first of all, I’m allergic to alcohol, so I’d just be ordering a water with lemon. Hugh Jackman, Ellen DeGeneres, and Michelle Obama.

Let us know what’s coming up next for you: new books, new projects; what are you working on?

I have a chapter book series coming out with Aladdin/Simon & Schuster in 2020 called Fort Builders. It’s about a group of kids who start a fort building company to earn money. Inspired by my own box fort builders at home. (Yes, there is currently a box fort in our play room.)

 

Dee Romito lives in her hometown of Buffalo, New York. You’re likely to find her on adventures with her husband and two energetic kids, at the local ice cream shop, or curled up in a comfy chair with her cats. She loves to write, travel, and giggle like a teenager with her friends.

Her middle grade books include The BFF Bucket ListNo Place Like Home, co-authored Best.Night.Ever, and Postcards from Venice (Aladdin/S&S). Her debut picture book, Pies from Nowhere: How Georgia Gilmore Sustained the Montgomery Bus Boycott (Little Bee Books) is now available. You can visit her website at DeeRomito.com.

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The Author-Editor Relationship

A little while ago I tweeted a bit about working with an editor and taking and using constructive criticism to make your book better. The initial tweet in my thread gained quite a bit of traction, and even as I was tweeting I knew this was a topic deserving of its own blog post, where I could lay out my thoughts in greater detail. Well, here is that blog post!

As a sort of disclaimer, I want to make it clear that what I’ll be talking about here is working with an editor at a publishing house who has acquired your novel. I do not personally have experience in working with freelance editors, etc., so I can’t speak to what that process is like specifically, nor do I know how the editing process goes for nonfiction. But I think the general spirit of what I’m saying here can apply to working with anyone providing edits/constructive criticism, be it your agent, your editor, a freelance editor, etc.

The absolute key thing to know about the author-editor relationship is that it is, it should be, a partnership. I think that often this isn’t something that is generally understood by aspiring authors and even debut authors when their book is first acquired. Which isn’t surprising; if you’ve never had a book published and never worked with a professional editor before, you wouldn’t know! But, again, that relationship is meant to be a partnership. An editor is not there to rewrite your book; to demand that you remove certain scenes or plot points or characters; to tell you how to change your book. No, what you and your editor should have is a collaborative relationship, an ongoing conversation on how to make your book better. They are helping you make your book better. Isn’t that what we all want?

I’ve heard, many times, aspiring authors react with dread and even anger to the idea of an editor “changing” their book. I cannot stress enough that this is the wrong attitude to have. A little tough love here: your book is not perfect. (Okay, technically no book is perfect, published or not, but you get my point). Your book can absolutely be made better. Especially in their earlier stages, books can ALWAYS be made better. And here’s the thing: there is only so much the person writing the book can do to improve it. I have seen this time and time again in my own work, and in feedback I get from critique partners, agents, and of course, my editor. When you’ve been working on something for so long, you lack an objective view; you’re so entrenched in the plot and characters and the world that you can’t see it as clearly as an outside reader would. This where your outside eyes (critique partner, agent, editor) come in. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten feedback/notes on one of my manuscripts with a suggestion that will so greatly improve the book that I slap my forehead and say, “Why didn’t I think of that??” These things oftentimes seem so obvious once someone points them out. But that’s the key: once someone points them out. My books have been improved so much by the ideas and feedback of others that I would never in a million years have thought of or seen myself. Because I’m too close to the work, I can no longer see it as clearly as it needs to be seen to be improved.

So, personally, I look forward to getting my edit letters. I look forward to hearing what thoughts my editor has on how to improve my books. It’s exciting to me, to know that there are ways and ways to improve the book that I haven’t thought of. I mean that sincerely.

Now, certainly, the editorial process can be scary and anxiety-inducing the first time you go through it, as a debut author. That’s normal! You’ve never done this before, and no amount of blog posts/articles/interviews with authors can prepare you for all the feelings you’ll go through when it’s YOUR BOOK going through edits. But! We can certainly talk about what that process looks like. Of course, every editor is different, but the standard process – based on my experience and that of the other traditionally published authors I know – looks something like this:

1. Once your book is acquired/turned in, your editor will go through to do his/her first edit. This results in them sending you, the author, what’s called an edit letter. The length of these can vary widely based on a lot of factors, but basically in it the editor gives you his/her thoughts on the book overall: what’s working well, what isn’t, what needs to be addressed in the next draft. They will then give you thoughts on specific scenes/plot points/character arcs/etc., as well as specific suggestions on how to fix what they feel isn’t working well, or what they feel needs to fleshed out/cut down/given more detail. These suggestions are meant to guide you as you revise. Maybe some of them work for you and you do exactly what the editor suggested; maybe some don’t, but they prompt you to think of a different way to address that same issue.

What an edit letter is NOT is a list of things your editor is DEMANDING that you change about the book. It is about areas that they want you to address, and as I said, they usually give suggestions on how you can do that, but how you address those things is entirely up to you. Again, we’ve acknowledged that your book is not perfect; you know there are ways it can be made better. And remember, editors are publishing professionals; this is their job, to make books better. They know what makes a book successful, both in connecting with readers and commercially. If you are publishing traditionally, the market is always going to be a consideration. That’s just the reality. So it’s very possible that your editor’s notes and suggestions may be geared towards making sure your book adheres more closely to certain expectations of a genre.

2. Once you get this edit letter, your best bet is to read through it a few times and sit with it for at least a few days. There may well be suggestions in it you don’t like, or you may disagree with your editor as to where the problem areas are. Trust me, take some time to digest their feedback. I have absolutely gotten certain suggestions that made me say “No way!” Yet after thinking about it for a bit, I’ve realized that they are exactly right, and that character can in fact have a much reduced role, or the book can do without this chapter entirely, or what have you.

You may also, after sitting with the edit letter for a few days, want to hop on the phone with your editor and talk things through. You can go over how you plan to address the problem areas/rough spots in your manuscript, get your editor’s take on how you’re thinking of putting his/her feedback into play, and brainstorm together if you’re feeling stuck. It can be super helpful to just bounce ideas off of each other. Remember, your editor loves and is excited about this book too; that’s why they bought it! And editors are generally very happy to jump on a call to talk things through at any point in the editing process – again, this is their job. That’s what they’re there for. Especially if you ever feel that you are your editor are not seeing eye to eye on something, a phone call will be the best way to work through that. Perhaps they did not initially understand why you made a certain choice, and if you can explain it they may then rethink their original feedback; this might then be a point in the story that can be made clearer but not necessarily majorly reworked.

3. You’ll usually be given a deadline to have your revised manuscript back to your editor, and so once you’ve turned in this first edit, things vary depending on the book and how strenuous a revision was needed. Your editor will read it over again and see how you addressed the identified problem areas. They may come back with more suggestions for another round of revisions, which doesn’t necessarily mean that you did anything wrong or that the book is “bad”. Some books are more difficult to get right than others; some have lots going on and lots of layers and so it’s easier to address different areas one at a time. Again, this process will vary based on the editor, the author, and the book. So, you may go back for another round of revisions. I know for myself, when making my edits to The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence, there were some scenes that I reworked per my editor’s notes, but I wasn’t sure how well I had pulled it off. Your editor will review and let you know, and you can go back and rework again if you want. But once that’s done…

4. Once all bigger picture things with the manuscript have been addressed, it’s time for line edits. This is when your editor goes through the manuscript thoroughly and, using some kind of tracked changes, will indicate where things on the sentence level should be cut, added, and reworded. This, for me, is usually when my word count comes down. There are often lots of things on the sentence level that can be cut; extraneous words and even whole sentences that just aren’t necessary. For example, “I walked up and knocked upon the door” can simply become “I knocked on the door.” That’s a very general example; a lot of this will depend on your writing style and your editor’s editing style. But you get the idea. This is also where your editor will catch things like word repetition, someone standing in one sentence that’s sitting the next with no mention of them moving, phrases you use 500 times in the manuscript, and the list goes on.

Again, as with the edit letter, just because your editor indicates a change doesn’t mean you HAVE to make it. This is why you go over these edits very carefully and thoroughly. There have been times where my editor indicated I should cut a line or even a word that I really liked, and so I just left it. That is totally fine. These are suggestions; you are not obligated to take every single one (though if you’re like me and use the phrase “in truth” practically every time a character speaks, yeah, you’re gonna want to get rid of some of those). But it bears repeating that editors know what they’re doing, and line edits are meant to make the book, overall, much cleaner (and sometimes shorter, which, if length is an issue, will be something you and your editor have talked about). And, again, if there’s anything going on in line edits that you’re really unsure or perplexed about, hop on the phone with your editor and talk it through.

And, of course, at any point in this process you can still be tweaking and reworking things that you’ve thought of that you’d like to change. It’s always a good idea to give your editor a heads up when making any major changes if you haven’t previously discussed them, though. Remember, you want to both be on the same page.

5. You’ll probably have multiple rounds of line edits – I usually have one big one, then a second and maybe a third just to clean up any last little things – and after that, the book goes to copyedits. Copyedits are not done by your editor; this is done by a member of the publisher’s copyediting team in house. You will need to review these edits as well, but what is being addressed here is grammar, typos, any word repetition that remains, consistency, etc. I actually had my copyeditor for Most Beautiful point out some words and phrases that weren’t in use yet in that time period – for instance, at one point Simonetta had used the phrase “in one fell swoop”, and the copyeditor pointed out that that phrase originated in a Shakespeare play, which obviously hadn’t been written yet in 1472 (or whatever year that exact scene took place, I forget, haha). I would never have imagined that – and the vast majority of readers would never have noticed either – but it was still a cool thing to know and be able to fix. Copyeditors are truly publishing’s unsung heroes, ya’ll.

This, as I said, is generally how the process goes. Your editor loves your book – they have to, to have acquired and read it all the many times they will read it through the process above – and wants it to be the best it can be. As I mentioned several times, this is all stuff you and your editor can talk about and hash out. It’s not a list of demands with which you must comply for your book to be published. You DO have to work with your editor in good faith and consider their suggestions, and your editor DOES have to think about what you are trying to achieve with the story, and not steer it in a direction you did not mean for it to go. Miscommunications and misunderstandings can arise, certainly. But, as in any collaborative partnership, you talk and work through those together.

For myself, as I am drafting and revising on my own before turning in the book to my editor, I’ll lean on her in the sense that: maybe I know a scene needs something but I’m just not sure what –  that’s something she can take a look at for me. In book 4, which I just turned in, I left notes for my editor aaaaallll throughout the manuscript for specific things I want her take on. I know she’ll address all those and find other areas for improvement that I hadn’t even thought about. And I seriously can’t wait to see what those are.

I’m sure there are horror stories of editors who have tried to rewrite an author’s book or been completely inflexible about changes, but I have certainly not experienced that personally, nor have any authors I know. That is definitely not the norm. The author-editor relationship is one that is mutually beneficial and should be creatively exciting for both parties. You are working on this book TOGETHER. Your editor wants your book to be the best it can be, and so do you. You’re a team. You’re on the same side. Your editor is your partner, not your adversary. It’s okay to ask questions, to be a little nervous. But ultimately, other than your agent, your editor is your book’s best and strongest advocate and biggest fan.

 

In Which a Pantser Makes and Writes from an Outline

As I mentioned a few posts back, my current work-in-progress is my most ambitious undertaking yet (and if you read my most recent post then you know that I’m actually almost done!). In order to get started with it, I was forced to make an outline, which is something I had never done before (I had never outlined an entire book, at least). For someone who usually falls into the “pantser” category of writers, this was a new challenge in and of itself.

I found the actual writing of the outline itself to be somewhat tedious – necessary though I knew it was, I just wanted to be writing the actual story and digging into the characters and relationships and dialogue. It didn’t help that the outline took much longer to finish than I’d anticipated (though given what the overall length of the book will end up as, that shouldn’t have surprised me). But then once it was done, I was ready to get writing, and embark on this strange new journey of writing from an outline.

I wondered whether writing from an outline would help me to draft faster. I’m told I write pretty quickly, but I would always like to be faster (well, as fast as is reasonable without writing a draft that is a complete and utter mess). This has most definitely been the case; I’m at about 104,000 words right now in something that I started back in March (though, full disclosure: I did have the prologue and a few chapters already written, since I originally started playing with this idea some years ago, so I probably had around 5000ish words to start). That is the fastest I have ever written a draft of this length to this point in my writing career, and I can only conclude that it is because of the outline.

Because, of course, making an outline has removed that element of pantsing wherein I sit down in front of my computer and say “Okay, what next?”. No need to try to figure it out as I sit down to write; I can just refer to the outline. It has prevented me from getting really stuck or hung up on plot elements, since I’d already mapped all that out in advance.

That’s not to say, of course, that I haven’t had difficulties and roadblocks in writing this draft. Oh, have I ever. It’s just that those difficulties have been more along the lines of character arc and development and the subtleties of the characters’ relationships with one another – which run the gamut from loving to tricky to downright dysfunctional. Getting those sorts of things right, of course, is no easy task in writing any novel, whether you’ve got an outline or not. On the flip side, though, one of my two POV characters was being a bit more elusive, and what I found as I wrote the outline is that some of her motivations and the way she thinks became clearer to me. She’s been a bit of a tough nut to crack overall, and only recently do I feel like I finally have all the keys to her as a character. And that is something else that often comes with the drafting process.

And certainly not all of the spontaneity of my pantser’s soul has been eliminated. There were a few events that I originally included in the outline that I decided to cut, both to keep the length of the book manageable and also for the overall flow/arc of the story. Then there have also been events and scenes that I added in that were not in the outline, or scenes that ended up becoming bigger and more fleshed out than I had originally anticipated while outlining. Parts of the story and characters are still revealing themselves to me as I write, which is one of the things I love about pantsing. I like to be surprised (at least a little bit) when I’m writing, and that has still happened in this book.

Along those lines, another of my concerns was that, since I already knew everything that was going to happen and had already sketched it out, would I get bored with the actual writing of the book? The answer, thankfully, has been a resounding no. Quite the contrary, actually: since mapping everything out in brief I’ve been itching to get at many of the scenes and really dig into them. I was very glad to find that!

So, overall, much as it may pain me to admit it, writing from an outline has actually been a really good experience, and I think it has helped me draft this book more successfully in many ways. Do I see myself making an outline again in the future if I don’t absolutely have to (as I did with this book)? Hmmmm…maybe, maybe not. I don’t know that I could make myself sit down and write a whole outline again if the story did not absolutely require it, as in this case. I do still like discovering and unearthing the story as I go along. So while I wouldn’t say I’ve been converted from pantser to plotter altogether, writing from an outline has been a much better experience than I thought it would be.