Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Question Behind The Cipher

My second novel is out today.  You don’t know how good it feels to say that.

Scratch that—they are plenty of writers reading this blog, many of them familiar with the heady brew of pride, relief, and gratitude that comes with seeing your book on a physical shelf.  They also know that when you start on the path toward that moment, the road ahead feels long and lonely.  Certain questions haunt you.  Are my characters interesting enough?  Can I actually tie all these plot strands together in thrilling fashion?  And will anyone be interested in a novel about a math riddle posed in 1859, known as the Riemann Hypothesis?

Okay, that last question was particular to me. 

You see, The Cipher took root in my mind when I read about a teenager in India who had possibly solved the Riemann Hypothesis, which many call the greatest mystery in math.  It deals with prime numbers, and the article noted that because modern encryption systems are built on prime numbers—and the fact that, basically, no one understands them—unraveling the Riemann Hypothesis could also unravel all of our electronic secrets. 

It turns out the teenager hadn’t solved the ancient math riddle.  But I thought:  what if he had?  And what if, suddenly, he had a key that could unlock any piece of encrypted information?

I knew it was a book I wanted to write.  The plot came almost fully formed to my mind.  But it was about a math problem from 1859.  And it involved a government agency called the NSA—one that few, at the time, were familiar with.  It felt . . . obscure.  The doubt loomed:  is this going to feel important to people?

I set out to write anyway, because that’s what you do—you write about the things that move you.  It’s the only way to go.

So I dove in.  I researched encryption and the NSA, and I made the characters as interesting as I could.  I drafted a novel in which the chapters are designated by prime numbers.  I could only hope people would find the subject as fascinating as I did.

Just as I was beginning to think the NSA was, indeed, a strange subject for a YA novel, something happened.

Edward Snowden hit.  Suddenly, the NSA was the subject of a national conversation.  In the flood of news that followed, there were reports of the NSA going to great lengths to break Internet encryption systems, just as it does in The Cipher.  My editor and I traded furious emails, watching with a kind of horrified fascination as various elements of the novel were reflected back in real life.

Any doubt about the subject matter of The Cipher being too obscure was erased.

It has only kept up since then.  Apple has made an encrypted iPhone, responding to popular worry about digital surveillance.  Hollywood released the Imitation Game, another fascinating (and unlike mine, true) code-breaking story.  On Sunday, a documentary about Edward Snowden and the NSA, Citizen Four, won an Oscar.  Yesterday it aired on HBO.

Today, The Cipher could not feel more timely.  My biggest question, then, has been resolved.  As for the others, you tell me:  are the characters interesting enough?  Did it thrill you?  Did the twists and turns keep you turning the pages?  Now that the book is out there in the world, I’m eager to hear the answers.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Road to Utopia,Iowa Was Paved With Rejection

Utopia, Iowa, my YA novel, is being published by Candlewick Press today (FEB 10) and that’s a most excellent thing. I’m very grateful. But it almost didn’t happen. That is to say Utopia, Iowa’s road to publication was not a smooth superhighway. It was more like a road I drove in rural Mexico one summer not long after I graduated from high school, one that was an obstacle course of potholes and cracked pavement and that eventually went from poorly paved to not paved at all, then to mud, and then ended in what appeared to be a cow pasture. My choices were hang with the cows or go back and try to find another road. I like cows but…

How many rejections did Utopia, Iowa, get? I could probably ask my amazing agent for an exact number, but I’ll guess in the neighborhood of fifteen, including one from the publisher who ultimately accepted and published it (though not the same editor). And also--an important detail- the version she accepted was not that same version that had been rejected.

We’ve all seen the lists of novels that were rejected numerous times and ultimately became huge bestsellers and/or literary classics. To name a few…

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone--at least 11 rejections. (Bazillion copies sold)
Lord of the Flies: 20 rejections (15 million+ copies sold) Classic
A Wrinkle in Time: 26 rejections. (millions sold) Classic

I don’t know how many of these manuscripts, if any, were rewritten during or after rejections. I have read that J.D.Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye was rewritten after many, many rejections and only then accepted by a publisher.

If you enjoy these kinds of lists here’s a long one at this site. http://www.literaryrejections.com/best-sellers-initially-rejected/

Obviously, no one knows for sure what people will buy—so there’s that. But also, since there are a lot of critically acclaimed novels and even classics on the list I’ve linked to, it’s fair to say that experienced editors and publishers may also be wrong about the quality of a novel.

So there’s that.

But what I’d like to focus on is I wrote a manuscript that was the best I could write at the time and that was handily rejected. Eventually, we had to admit that it wasn’t going to sell. I left it in my documents and moved on. I wrote another novel and that one was accepted. And then I wrote another and that one was accepted, too.

But I never entirely forgot that manuscript I’d left behind. Something about it, even after years, still interested me. Maybe part of that interest was that it was set in Iowa, the state I grew up in and hadn’t been back to for many, many years. But I also think I felt a connection to it that I never entirely broke free of. So I pulled the manuscript up and read through it. I still liked parts, but I saw a big problem in the manuscript that I hadn’t seen before. There were two stories and they were competing with each other—not working together. I thought about this problem for a day. Did I really want to go back to the manuscript again? It was going to take a lot of work and a lot of time and I could quite possibly end up in the same place—that damn cow pasture. Ultimately, the answer for me was yes. Part of the yes was that foolish stubborn steak so many writers have that serves us for both good and ill, but part of it was that I thought I could fix the story, that I could make it much better. It was worth the gamble.

So I tried.

And that version of Utopia, Iowa, sold on its first submission and made me very happy. I don’t want to say we should never give up on our manuscripts. Most writers have a few they were wise to give up on. However, I do want to say that if you have a manuscript buried in your documents folder that you couldn’t publish, maybe one that came close to being published or one you still feel connected to in some way, it’s worth taking a look at it again. Maybe the time away will give you the distance you need to see it more clearly. You never know. Writing, like publishing, is seldom a straight road.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Long Game

I quit my day job in 2006. If someone had told me it would take me eight years before I published my first book, I’m sure I would still be working that day job or one like it. I thought it would take me a year…maybe two tops. I was ambitious and overly confident. I didn’t realize that if it took me ten years that would be normal.

Edith Cohn, Middle Grade Author
I didn’t know many other writers at the time. The ones I did know were unpublished like myself. I attended my first writers’ conference that fateful year of 2006, the Rutgers One on One Plus where Laurie Halse Anderson was the keynote speaker. I got so fired up about finishing my book, I exploded into a firecracker of determination. I quit my job while living in NYC—probably the most expensive city in the US. I was armed with what every writer needs: A benefactor. Mine came in the form of a supportive husband. But it was far from easy. We were both dreamers. We didn’t really have the money to pull this off. Eventually, we moved some place cheaper. We took and borrowed from other kind benefactors: The Father-in-Law, The Credit Card.

Artists have been doing this for ages. And they will continue to do it, because that’s what being a novelist is. It would take me several years before I realized it, but indeed, writers are artists. Sure, some people make money as authors. Some people also win the lottery. The truth for most of us? Being a successful novelist is a long game.

It’s a long game. Kristen Kittscher said this to me recently. She is one of those authors who encourages and supports other authors. She’s the sort of person who kindly turns on the lights when you might be feeling around in the dark. She said this phrase to me not in regards to money, but in regards to building a readership.

Because not only is getting published a long game, it’s also a long game after you get published. Being published isn’t the finish line. Being published allows you a place at the starting line.

Spirit's Key FSG/ Macmillan
Publishing a first novel is only the beginning of our careers. I’m so thrilled to have SPIRIT'S KEY my debut novel, a mystery about a psychic girl and her ghost dog, on the shelves. But I'm a newbie at a new job. I’m only beginning to build a readership, to navigate bookstore events and festivals, to get the word out about who I am and what I have to offer. I’m surrounded by more experienced authors who have more books under their belts and readers who already love them. Edith who? Spirit’s what? It’s enough to make one panic.

But then, Kristen’s words come back to me: It’s a long game. There’s no reason to get one’s blood pressure in the red. I might be at the starting line again with new goals to accomplish, but it’s actually not a race. It’s a game where I will publish not one book, but many books. It’s a game where I will build a readership and success through my work over many years. It’s a game where I will do what I have always done published or not: I will write. And that is always a dream come true.

A fun dream-come-true video where I open a hardcover copy of SPIRIT'S KEY for the first time.

Edith Cohn is the author of SPIRIT'S KEY a middle grade mystery about a twelve-year-old psychic girl who works with the ghost of her pet dog to solve a crime on a remote island filled with magic keys, wild dogs and superstitious characters. Learn more at www.edithcohn.com

Monday, September 8, 2014

Why a haunted LIBRARY?

I’m so pleased to have the opportunity to write about the Haunted Library here on your blog, Sara. The Haunted Library is where my relationship with you began. I included a 10-page proposal for it when I first wrote you to ask about representation and I think you had the series sold almost before the ink on our letter of agreement was dry. That was almost three years ago now…and finally the first two books in the series are out!

 One of the most common questions I’ve asked about the Haunted Library (in the three weeks it's been out!) is why a library? Why not a house? Or a school? The answer to that question is the subject this post.

The easy answer is: because I LOVE libraries. But that may be understating it.

My love for libraries began in childhood. I was kind of a lonely kid. I didn’t spend a lot of time with other kids; I spent my time in the library. Reading and writing stories. The library was my refuge. My safe harbor. From the library I could go ANYWHERE…inside the pages of a good book.

One of my favorite books was E.L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed Up Files of Basil E. Frankweiler. Claudia and I were kindred spirits, except I didn’t want to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I wanted to live in the library.

I got a job as a library page when I was 15. Finally, I had an opportunity to play out that From the Mixed Up Files of Basil E. Frankweiler fantasy. My best friend had moved away, so I had nothing better to do on a Saturday night than hang out in the library.

By myself.

After closing.

No one at the library had any idea I was doing this. The adult I worked with locked up at closing and went out the back door. I headed toward the front door as though I was really leaving, but as soon as I heard the back door latch, I went back into the work room, where I hung out the rest of the night. I ate my dinner there. I read. Sometimes I watched a movie. But mostly I wrote. I wrote pages and pages and pages on my “novel.” I would’ve slept there, too, but I had to be home by midnight. This went on for well over a year.

Then one night, someone drove by and saw the light on in the back room. They also thought they saw someone moving around in the library. So first they called Mr. Picken, who was the library director. Mr. Picken assumed someone had broken into the library, so he called the police.

One of the officers went to the front door in case the “burglar” went out that way. The other officer waited in the back alley for Mr. Picken to come with the key. I was completely oblivious to all of this. But I will never forget the sound of that back door opening, the flashlight, and the voice that called out, “Police! Is anyone here?”

The only person there was…me.

Mr. Picken asked if I was scheduled to work on Monday. I was. He said we would talk about this before my shift. And then he sent me home.

It was a horrible, horrible weekend. I was so scared I was going to lose this job that I loved. And I didn’t see myself as the sort of person who would ever get fired from a job. Even worse, how could I ever even set foot in the library again if they fired me?

But I wasn’t fired. Mr. Picken was very nice about the whole thing. He asked me how many times I’d hung out in the library by myself after closing. I uh…may have SLIGHTLY underestimated the number of times I’d done this. By about thirty or so. Next he wanted to know what I was doing in the library. I told him I was writing stories. He smiled and said, “One day when you’re a writer, this is going to make a nice story for you to tell.” [How did he know???] “But you can’t stay at the library after closing. You need to go home.” And for weeks after that, someone always made sure that I really did leave at closing.

I’ve continued to write in the library as an adult, only now I do it when the library is open. J

The library “saved” me when I was a kid. It gave me a place to belong.

I also believe the library saved my older son. Our local library staff took an interest in him. They talked to him…they offered him volunteer work…they even gave him a job when he was old enough. He found a place to belong at the library just like I did.

I’m so grateful to both the Martin County Library and to the Coralville Public Library for their roles they played in my life and my son’s life that I’ve always felt a strong desire to give back to the library. I’ve helped with MANY library book sales and events… I’ve led teen writers’ workshops…I’ve facilitated book discussion groups for kids…I helped establish a reading with therapy dogs program…I’ve even served as President of the Friends of the Library. More than once. But it’s never felt like enough.

If you go into a library and look around, you’ll see the library kids. The kids like my son and me. They still hang out at the library. The library is still a refuge. It still saves kids.

And I would still like to live in a library. Like Claire in my series.

So THAT’S why the Haunted Library and not the Haunted House or the Haunted School or the Haunted Anything Else.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Kim: Donna Tartt is My Imaginary Friend

Or, How I Get Unstuck During Revision

When I’m revising a manuscript, I carry a book with me at all times. It bangs around in my bag, its corners wearing soft. It has oily fingerprints from wasabi peas. Friends do not ask to borrow it. I panic when it goes missing. Rumpled and stained, it’s like a beloved teddy bear. 
If you’re inclined to slice a teddy bear down its middle, rip out its stuffing and weigh it. Burrow under its button eyes with a seam ripper and examine the stitch-holes beneath. Measure the diameter of its ears and paws and marvel over its symmetry. 

I abuse these books in the name of revision. They are my touchstone texts, the books I return to when I need a master storyteller to tell me what to do.

In edu-speak, “touchstone texts” are books teachers use for lessons on writing craft (disclaimer: I know nothing, Jon Snow, about being a professional educator). My practice is probably closer to what teachers call using “mentor texts”, where one student uses one book to further their own writing. I like this term very much, because it allows me to fantasize that these authors are my actual mentors (yes, Lev Grossman, I fantasize about you). Even better, that my favorite authors have their own mentors. Imagine the pairings! Dickens traversing death and time to cast his spectral gaze over Donna Tartt’s sharp (I imagine it is sharp) shoulder. His bushy eyebrows rise in delight: of this, I’m sure.

My touchstone texts don’t have to be my favorite books (though they often are). They just have to do one thing extremely well. With the perspective of time, I can generally tell where my manuscript falls short, and where I need to turn.

When my lexicon feels tapped, I pick up Yōko Agawa’s Revenge, which inspires me to keep searching for the fewest, most precise words. When I need to ground the reader with a salient detail, Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides reminds me of the power of the ordinary (“a hot-water bottle the texture of inflamed skin, a midnight-blue jar of Vicks Vapo-rub fingerprinted inside”). If a chapter feels pedestrian, I re-read everything Karen Russell, whose stories about presidential horses and silkworm factory girls challenge me with their ingenuity. If my characters feel loosely drawn, I open Tartt’s The Goldfinch on my Kindle and do a keyword search for every mention of Xandra-with-an-X. If I start to worry that my protagonist is unlikable, I read a few pages of Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, then slap my own hand.

Touchstone texts aren’t books that inspire my novels’ concepts. The Talented Mr. Ripley is the inspiration for my third novel. But I won’t let myself near it while I’m writing. I’ve already got a version in my head, filtered into the elements that fascinate me. Besides, there’s the risk of too much Highsmith making its way onto my page. Or that I’ll judge my work against Highsmith’s, and become paralyzed.

Along these lines, I have some hard/fast rules for my touchstone texts:
  1. Touchstone texts have no business near first drafts. For all the reasons mentioned above.
  2. If you drift into the voice of the touchstone text author, banish the book from your cache.
  3. Mix. It. Up. There’s something to be learned from every great book. Don’t be afraid to study a writer whose style diverges from your own. Lately, I’m learning the rewards of a slow-rising character arc from Amanda Coplin’s The Orchardist.
Revising? Jonesing for a touchstone? I offer the following suggestions:

For Leads: The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier; Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs; Thank you for Smoking by Christopher Buckley; The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

For Endings: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides; The Constant Gardner by John leCarré; Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay (including the last chapter, published 20 years post-release); Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

For Voice: The Woman Upstairs by Clare Messud; Dark Places by Gillian Flynn (for Libby Day); Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer; The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

For Tone: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote; The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz; The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides; The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

For Crafting a Well-Constructed Narrative: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt; Bleak House by Dickens; Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier; The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
For Ingenuity: Antigonick by Ann Carson, Sophocles, and Bianco Stone; We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler; Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell; I Want to Show You More by Jamie Quatro

For Elegant Prose: Speedboat by Renata Adler; Cathedral by Raymond Carver; Atonement by Ian McEwan; Revenge by Yōko Ogawa

Yes, that’s a lipliner holding open Tartt’s Secret History. I’m not writing with it, though that would be glamorous. And messy. 

Monday, June 30, 2014

Dianne: Writing a Series -- What I Didn’t Know

Ever since the first book in my middle grade series released in April, people have been asking me if I’m excited about writing the next two books. When I tell them both books are already written, were in fact written before the first one even came out, they’re surprised. So am I.

The third book hasn’t undergone editorial revisions yet, but it’s due for completion this fall. The offer for the 3-book deal occurred in October of 2012, and by the time the second anniversary of that happy event comes around, the bulk of the writing for all three books will be completed.

I had no idea it would happen that fast.

Right after the contract was signed, there was the usual wait for an editorial letter. At the time, it seemed like the pace would be no different from my previous two book deals – that is, lots of waiting with periodic bouts of frantic activity. It wasn’t until I completed the editorial revisions for Book 1 and looked ahead to the submission deadline for Book 2 that it dawned on me how fast things were happening.

In September of 2013, I found myself working on all three books at once. I had first pass pages of The Eighth Day for proof-reading, my editorial letter for The Inquisitor’s Mark, and I was about a third of the way into writing the first draft of (the not-yet-officially-titled) Book 3 – all while working a full-time job as a teacher.

I felt like this:

"Jane! Get me off this crazy thing!"
It turned out I could not work on all three books at once. I kept getting confused about what Jax, my main character, knew and when he knew it.  So I concentrated first on the proof-reading of Book 1, then the revisions for Book 2. Only when those tasks were finished did I open my first draft of Book 3 again …

… and said, “Oh my God. This is a horrible mess.” Then I started over from scratch …

Writing Book 3 was an uphill battle. Like a magpie, I kept getting distracted by shiny new things: Eighth Day ARCs, early reviews, a cover for The Inquisitor’s Mark, back cover copy for the paperback version of The Eighth Day … (Did you know that was established before the hardback even released? Me neither!) Eventually I produced something I was proud to present to my editor, and right now I’m anxiously awaiting her guidance in transforming it into an even better story.

But do you know what the biggest surprise about writing a series has been? It never occurred to me that people would want to talk to me about the newly released first book – and meanwhile I know everything that happens in the next two.

Me: “You think that was bad, wait until Jax has to … oh, I can’t tell you. But you’re really going to love … no, wait, I shouldn’t say. But what did you think about the part where … um, has that happened yet?”

I’m a walking, talking spoiler. Beware.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Laura: Looking to the Past

If you're reading this, you're probably a writer. Or know a writer. So maybe you can tell me: is there a writer out there who thrills to the sight of a blank page? Whose creative juices are goosed by a blinking cursor?

If so, I don’t want to know about it.

Like most writers (I hope), I need something to set my mind wandering down a path of “maybes” and “what ifs”. Often it’s people I know, places I go, conversations I overhear.

Take UNDER THE EGG, my first novel that comes out March 18. Theo's sidekick, Bodhi? My college roommate. Theo's grandfather? My favorite professor. Theo's crumbling townhouse? My eighty-five-year-old neighbor's house (which he recently sold for over a million. Oh, Brooklyn.).

But my favorite place to mine for ideas is history. Recent or prehistoric—I don’t care. Give me a well-researched biography, a juicy obituary, an old diary or letter. I can squeeze ideas out of my brain until they dribble out my ears, but a true story will always be richer, more inspiring, more impossible to believe.

Life is truly stranger than fiction.
UNDER THE EGG began in the pages of just such an incredible-but-true book: The Forger's Spell, the story of a man who forged Vermeers and sold them to the Nazis. On page 35, Edward Dolnick wrote: 

The easiest test of an old master—and the one test almost certain to be carried out—is to dab the surface with rubbing alcohol. In a genuinely old painting, the surface will be hard, and the alcohol will have no effect. If the painting is new, the alcohol will dissolve a bit of paint, and the tester’s cotton swab will come up smudged with color.

I had an idea.

That initial idea set me off on a Google spiral, where I stumbled upon more incredible stories: a painting by Titian, painted over by another artist and lost for over 400 years. A group of art scholars in World War II tasked with finding and protecting Europe’s greatest treasures. A portrait of Raphael’s mistress, where an x-ray uncovered a painted-out wedding ring.

But finding the true story behind the headlines requires more than just a Google search. And that's where the Theo and Bodhi sides of my brain came together. 

Theo is living a Great Depression lifestyle in modern-day Greenwich Village, a life where her computer access is limited to the library (where she’d rather check books out than log on). Her friend Bodhi is tech-savvy, happy to exploit high-end gadgets to track down the latest news and technology.

Like Bodhi, I rely heavily on the Internet. Google is my best friend and most-consulted expert (and sometimes annoying co-worker with too many “must-see” dog GIFs). But in the world of art history, the Internet has limited advantages. The real scholarship is found in painstakingly-researched books and articles, not in the media. While the instant access of the internet is great for the pajama-fond writer, it was important to also consult sources that had the weight of well-documented scholarship behind them.

The Internet can also create a real problem in mysteries. How do you build suspense when you can find any answer in 0.43 seconds? And who says the first answer is always the right answer? That’s where Theo’s tech aversion pays off. She shows us that sometimes you have to put down the gadgets and just quietly, seriously, really look. That goes for looking at art and also looking at your own writing, where you have to figure out how to turn, say, a cool idea sparked by an Internet search into a full-fledged plot with characters.

But that comes later. First you need an idea. So try starting in the past. Pick up old pictures at yard sales. Read out-of-print books. Take a walk through a cemetery and read the headstones. Ask yourself who these people were and what they want to tell us.

The stories are out there waiting for anyone -- and that includes any kid -- to find them and bring them back to life.