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Well, I certainly didn’t mean to leave the blog dormant for so long, but I swear I have a good excuse.

I have signed up for the Writers’ League of Texas 2012 Agents Conference on June 22-24.  I’m super excited for the seminars at the conference, particularly for the optional YA track that I added on.  Friends who have attended previous Agents Conferences have how much they learned.  Two have called it life-changing.  I’m also looking forward to networking with other writers from the state and region, not to mention the instructors, editors, and agents that are also attending.

But I’m most excited about my 10-minute pitch to an agent.

In person.

Like, face-to-face.  Me telling the agent about my book.

It’s exciting and scary all at the same time.  I’m booked with an agent who seems super nice and is very successful, and whose blog and twitter have been both entertaining and inspirational.  So I could not be more thrilled to have an opportunity to present to her.

This means that I’ve been revising like crazy.  I can’t pitch an incomplete book (and no matter that this book has a coherent beginning, middle, and end… until it’s a final draft, it’s not finished) without feeling like a fraud.  And if she likes my pitch and requests pages or a full, I can’t send her something that doesn’t represent my best work.  That’s a surefire way to the “no thanks” pile.

It’s been a rough couple of months.  I’ve spent a lot of time in front of the laptopMy friends Rozie and Kristen and I have formed a small writing group and have been meeting regularly to work on our books, which has helped beyond measure.

(quick aside: their novels are still in outline form but are meticulously researched and they are already so exciting, I can barely stand it!)

Last month, I took a three-week class meant to help develop a novel’s concept and help it stand out in the slush pile.  Though our actual work was not read or discussed, we shared elevator pitches and outlines.  I’ll admit that mine drew some pretty strong criticism from the instructor and classmates.  It stung.  But after talking it through with my writing group and ruminating on the feedback, I realized that the instructor and class had some valid points.

So I tossed the first three chapters of my book.

This was a hard step, y’all.  I had already revised them, but many of my original words were there.  The first words I wrote as an aspiring author.  Acknowledging that they weren’t my best work was rough.  It hurt to move these scenes to the discard pile.

But what I’ve written in their stead is so. much. better.

And I’ve cut a lot more.  I’ve changed from past tense to present tense, re-imagined characters, and rearranged the timeline.  The current draft is, in many ways, unrecognizable from the first draft from 2008.  It’s gone from being a light, fluffy romance to something more of a coming-of-age story, complete with conflict and tension and choices.  My characters make mistakes and get hurt.  The writing is tighter and more vibrant.

You guys, my discard folder has 24,000 orphaned words.

The first draft had only 50,000 words.  I’ve cut nearly half a book.

Right now I’m sitting at about 63,000 words and will probably land somewhere around 65,000 with the final draft.  That’s a-ok with me.  There is still more work to do, and time is beginning to run short.  But I’m determined, and I have a good support system in place both locally and online to keep me from jumping off a cliff when things get frustrating. By the time my agent pitch appointment rolls around on June 23, I’ll have a finished product, a summary, a query, and a pitch.  I’ll be able to talk coherently about my work.  I will get out of the pitch without a nervous breakdown.  I’ve got this, right?  Right.

And I ordered business cards.  They say I’m a writer.  Time to fulfill that dream.

It’s time once again for Road Trip Wednesday, YA Highway‘s weekly traveling blog carnival.  This week’s topic:

What was the best book you read in March? 

For me, March was a great month for reading, as was February.  The past couple of months I’ve had this wonderful streak of loving everything I read.

ImageFirst up, Wanderlove by Kirsten Hubbard.
This is a sweet story about travel and finding yourself.  I love a good contemporary YA romance, so I was pretty sure I would like this.  What I wasn’t expecting was how much this would tug at my own globetrotting tendencies.  It’s been a long time since I’ve traveled the way that Bria travels in the book.  Ok, in fairness, I was never a serious backpacker, but I did some hostel-hopping in Europe back in the day.  These days, I still travel, but it’s more like “hey, four day trip to Paris!” where we stay in a real hotel and stress about getting home (we only fly standby).*  I would love to take off a few months and get lost in the jungle.

I definitely related to Bria, who stretches or manipulates the truth when speaking to the backpackers she meets.  I was so intimidated by some of the travelers I met in hostels, especially the ubiquitous Australians eight months in to a year-long round-the-world trip.  I was merely a study abroad student traveling on spring break – I don’t think I even needed to wash underwear in the sink more than once before returning home.  I burned with jealousy of these kids who were traveling on a shoestring.

But Bria is also leaving behind a bad situation, and she uses this trip to reinvent herself.  Actually, reinvent is what she thinks she’s doing, but I think she’s figuring out who she really was all along.

At any rate, this is a fantastic read guaranteed to stir wanderlust (or even wanderlove!) in anyone who reads it.

ImageThe other best book I read was Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta.

I had put off reading Finnikin, even though I had loved all of Melina Marchetta’s contemporary YA books, because I’m not that into fantasy as a rule.  But it was available at a great price on Kindle because of the release of the sequel, Froi of the Exiles, so I decided to give it a shot.

Like many of her novels, Finnikin of the Rock unfolds slowly (amirite, Jellicoe Road lovers???), so I was lost for a bit in the beginning.  About halfway through, the book grabbed me, and by the end I was completely and totally hooked.  Finnikin is a wonderful male protagonist, burning with a desire to help his exiled countrymen but just so consumed with crippling self-doubt and guilt.  His feelings of unworthiness (to lead his country, to love the girl traveling with him) resonated deeply with me.

Marchetta has created a brutal world in this book, so expect both bad guys and good guys to die.  What has happened to the displaced people of Finnikin’s kingdom of Lumatere is horrific**, and joining them on their journey to regain their country feels like a privilege.  I got swept up in the prophesies and curses surrounding Lumatere and the mystery of how (and if) they would be fulfilled.

I’m not even going to get into the fantastic love story between Finnikin and Evanjalin, because honestly, you should just read this book.  But believe me when I say she’s a kick ass female character, and I haven’t rooted so hard for two people to get together in a long time.

So yeah, after finishing Finnikin, I downloaded Froi immediately, even though it’s a bazillion pages long and I have so many things to read and maybe I should be reading something a little lighter after Finnikin. I don’t care.  I’ve got to read this book.

What were the best books you read in March?

*I am in no way complaining about jetsetting on standby.  It’s hella cool, and I’m lucky to be able to do that.

**Trigger warning, though, as there is discussion of rape and its consequences.

A quick Friday survey

Found this little meme on E. Lockhart’s blog.  I miss doing these surveys, which my friends and I used to do once a week via email.  Maybe I should make this a regular Friday feature…?

Anyway:

Three names people call me: Manders, Amandaaaahhhh, glamtart

Three places I have lived: War Eagle, Arkansas; Dublin, Ireland; Austin, Texas

Three places I have worked: grist mill, show cavern, large regional theater

Three things I love to watch: birds; sunsets; Criminal Minds any time it’s on, and I know it’s bad, but come on: Matthew Gray Gubler!

Three places I have been: the Taj Mahal, the Colosseum, the Teatro Colón

Three things I love to eat: biscuits + chocolate gravy, flatbread pizza, goat cheese anything

Three things I’m looking forward to: my friends Ryan and Tom spending Saturday night at our house, our next overseas adventure (TBD, but I’m already looking forward to it), ordering new Warby Parkers.

Want to participate? Leave your answers or a link to your answers in comments!

Save the date!

Want to discuss your favorite young adult books?  Learn about current publishing trends?  See me looking all nervous and awkward in person?  If you’re in the Dallas area on March 25th, you’re in luck!

The ABCs of YA, Sunday, March 25 2012, 1 PM   Lucky Dog Books  10801 Garland Road, Dallas 75218

Behold my graphic design skillz.

Come to the Writer’s Garret and talk YA with Kristen Dickson and me in a free Writers’ Block about YA.

Click here for all the details.  From the Garret’s website:

Join various members of The Writer’s Garret community for an open discussion of one of the most vibrant genres in publishing today: Young Adult Fiction. Learn about publishing trends, gender and race issues, censorship, and writing for teens and twenty-somethings. We will save time to discuss your favorite books: from contemporary romances, to urban dystopias… and even vampires, werewolves, and magicians.

So, if you’re in the area on Sunday the 25th, we would love for you to join our discussion.  Please don’t make us stand there with no audience.  That would be super awkward indeed.

The inquiring minds over at YA Highway want to know, and I want to tell you:  the best book I read in February was…

Where Things Come Back

WHERE THINGS COME BACK by John Corey Whaley

Funny story: on Saturday night, I drank a leeeeetle too much wine, and therefore I woke up at 3am with a headache.  As I was waiting to fall back asleep, I started planning a blog post about Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley.  I mean, it was going to be epic, a review full of literary analysis and deep, critical thinking rather than just my usual “ooh this book was good blah blah blah” deal.

Of course, I’ve completely forgotten what I was going to say.

Lesson here, kids: Drink in moderation.

So, what should I say instead?  I’ll just list five reasons I enjoyed this book instead.

1. It was like revisiting my childhood. There’s a reason that my books are primarily based in Arkansas.  While I no longer live there, I did spend the entirety of my childhood and most of my early adulthood there.  The town names (indeed, even the character names as many of them were named after Arkansas towns) were so familiar that it was like a sort of homecoming.  It’s Central Arkansas, not my home of Northwest Arkansas, where book is set, but there was still so much familiarity for me.  For example, I grew up near the White River, which flows all over the state, and it’s an important location in the book.  There is a passing mention of someone who had died on the White River, and I know someone who died on the White River in almost the exact same way.  So yeah, this book reminded me of home.  I suppose if he had gotten everything wrong, this whole setting it in Arkansas thing would have pissed me off.  He didn’t.

2. As previously established, I am a giant nerd.  I remember a story on NPR about the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, believed to be extinct for decades but possibly sighted in 2004.  Confession time: I was in 4-H when I was little and did not one but TWO year-long projects on the birds of Arkansas.  So this story caught my interest.  And then Sufjan Stevens wrote a song about it.  I love Sufjan Stevens.  He’s twice appeared as #1 on my annual top ten albums list.  He’s on my List.  Seeing his Age of Adz tour helped me throw off a prolonged depression.  Anyway, between being an bird nerd and NPR geek and Sufjan devotee, I was already a nerd about this woodpecker.  And then I listened to the YALSA award ceremony in January, and this book won the freaking Printz Award.  As they were talking about the book, I was like… wait.  That all sounds very familiar!  Turns out that I wasn’t the only NPR-and-Sufjan-loving person with a literary bent.  So I immediately ordered Where Things Come Back.

3. Narrated by a guy!  Don’t get me wrong, I love female narrators, especially in YA books.  I’m still very much a teenager at heart, and I relate well to the young female point of view.  But I love, love, love a well-written guy narrator.  It’s like vacationing in another world.  It’s one reason I’ve started reading more male YA authors – to understand, finally, the psyche of the teenage boy.  Not like it’s a chore to read this book, or one of John Green’s, or anything by Markus Zusak (if he rewrote the phone book, I’d read it).  Those guys can WRITE.

4. Multiple converging storylines.  I won’t say much about this because I’d like you to read the book if you haven’t already.  But there’s so much going on in this book!  Whaley ties most of it together at the end, and he leaves the rest for you to decide for yourself.  That was one of my favorite things about this novel – the fact that some things are left hanging.  The reader is left to imagine how these things will turn out.  It’s clearly intentional, and in my mind, it works really well.  A lot of authors try this, and many are not as successful as Whaley is here.

5. He done wrote it good.  So, this is where I try to reconstruct my drunken musings while my grasp of the English language fails me.  It’s amazing how much more coherent you are at 3am with a splitting headache.  Anyway, there’s religion, mysticism, and mystery throughout this book, and it’s almost taken for granted.  Those things just exist in the world of Where Things Come Back.  It’s kind of like magical realism without the actual magic.  It’s a sense of things being larger than you – larger than these small-town characters and their town.  Also, it’s quite a literary book, with multiple forms of narration and devices and symbolism and themes and everything, while still remaining a fun and entertaining read.  Gah.  I’m not doing a very good job of conveying my thoughts.  So… yeah.  There’s a lot going on in this book, many layers, and I’m left thinking about it days after I finished it.

So, in summary, yay Arkansas, yay birds, yay Where Things Come Back!  John Corey Whaley, I am eagerly awaiting your next book.

What was your favorite February read?  Join YA Highway’s Road Trip Wednesday blog carnival and spread the YAngelism!

A Valentine to my youth…

This post was inspired by the Valentine’s Day lovefest at YA Highway. Hop over there if you want to see more Valentines to authors, books, characters, and more.

We all have those books that we read in our youth and never forget. Some haven’t go out of style (see this year’s highly publicized 50th Anniversary of Madeline L’Engle’s classic Newbury winner A Wrinkle in Time), while others become dog-eared footnotes in publishing history.

Today I’m going to give a little Valentine’s love to two books I read and reread in my youth. Both books are – I think – relatively unknown nowadays, and both have cropped up in conversation within the last week or so.

The first is a middle grade (children’s?) book called Behind the Attic Wall by Sylvia Cassedy. For some reason, I brought up this book at Book Club the other night, and no one there had read it. My copy, recently liberated from my childhood bedroom at my parents’ house. Behind the Attic Wall is about finding friendship and acceptance, even if you are, by all accounts, unloveable.

Oh yeah, and there are talking dolls.

But I promise it’s not creepy! It’s quite charming, actually, with two mean old great-aunts, a completely adorable uncle named Morris, and a big, creepy house. Perfect setup for a story about a mad-at-the-world orphan, and twelve-year-old protagonist Maggie will infuriate you before worming directly into the center of your heart.

The other book came to mind because I was reading The Luxe by Anna Godberson, which has a similar setting. I wasn’t a huge fan of The Luxe, and this novel might have something to do with that.

My mom got Emily by Candice Ransom at a garage sale or thrift store and gave it to my sister, who is two years older than me. I stole it from her bookshelves (much like I did with many other books) and never gave it back. Sorry, Lisa. I had read everything else we had already.

It’s a short read, but this young adult novel about a debutante gaining a social conscience (and a hot doctor) at the turn of the 20th century has stuck with me ever since. I loved the story, and I distinctly remember looking up what a Gibson Girl looked like, in the days before computers and Google and stuff, and trying to recreate that iconic hairdo in my bedroom mirror.  I wanted to dash around New York City in a carriage and be torn between going to balls or helping the poor.  I totally would have made the right choice, y’all.  I mean, after I went to the ball and stuff.

I haven’t read Emily in at least 10 or 15 years, probably since college. I hope it’s still stashed away at my parents’ house somewhere, because I’d love to reread it.

(Side note: my parents are moving for the first time in 32 years.  I still have a fully-functioning bedroom at home, though I have lived in a different state for 10 years.  I am not looking forward to cleaning it out be in the next few months, except for finding old books and such.  Oh, and for the godawful relics of my childhood that I’m sure to find.  Like mixtapes created by holding up a cassette recorder to the TV during “Friday Night Videos.”  Or the U2 collage I made in high school.  For that matter, the Broadway collage I made in junior high.  I was SO COOL, you guys.)

I highly recommend both of these novels.  They’re still available online through resellers (or perhaps at your local used bookstore!).

What books from your childhood are you still carrying with you?  Any hidden gems I should check out?

It’s time for YA Highway’s Road Trip Wednesday! This week’s topic is:

What was the best book you read in January?

It will come as no shock to anyone who has had even remote contact with me during January that the best book I read last month was…

20120201-105658.jpg

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

I was super excited for this book, like I used to get when the new Harry Potter would come out. Maybe more so. I preordered it back in June 2011 when John (ok, I can’t seem to call him Mr. Green or Green because come on, he’s John Green, everyone’s internet BFF) said he would sign all of the preorders. In the ensuing months, buzz about the book grew. Secretive buzz, because there was a gag order on spoilers, but buzz nonetheless. I watched as John struggled to sign all 150,000 copies by the deadline. He had to go to an occupational therapist from all the signing, y’all.

The more I became entrenched in nerdfighteria, the more anxious I was for this book to come out.

John announced he would also release a limited-edition audiobook of himself reading the novel. I ordered that.

John announced that he and his brother Hank would go on a promotional tour for the book and Hank’s music (the Tour de Nerdfighting). The closest date was in Austin. I bought a ticket.

By the time the book arrived, I was terrified that it wouldn’t live up to the hype. I should have known John wouldn’t let me down.

The Fault in Our Stars is a beautiful, funny, and heartbreaking story of two teenagers with cancer. They embark upon a wild, yet still entirely plausible, adventure together in search of the meaning behind a book they both love. I’m not going to say any more about the plot, just in case you haven’t read it.

My opinion of the book? John gave us two wonderful, nuanced characters with big lovable personalities, sharp wit, and plenty of flaws. He handles the day-to-day business of being sick with a deft hand (he’s had experience working with sick kids, and that definitely shows here). He really opened my eyes to what kids like Hazel and Augustus – and their families and friends – go through, living with cancer.

I loved this book.

I finished the book on a plane, on the way to a weekend trip to NYC. I thoroughly embarrassed myself with the gasping, snotty sobs. I had also brought along Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races, since it is February’s book club book, but I couldn’t pick it up all weekend. I didn’t want to read anything ever again. That’s how good The Fault in Our Stars was.

I also kind of never wanted to write again. Because I will never write something this funny/sad/powerful/wonderful. That’s not me being all Insecure Writer. That’s just me telling the truth.

My friend Gabe and I spent hours making t-shirts for The Hectic Glow (a band discussed in the book) for ourselves and for John and Hank, because that’s how nerdy we are, and we wore the shirts to the Tour de Nerdfighting in Austin.

Here’s Gabe’s video about the t-shirts and event.

When talking about the book that night, John said some great and inspiring things about his process and intent with this work. How he must have written over a million words before coming up with the final version (after years of trying to write this story). How he tries to write teenagers like they think they sound, instead of how they actually sound. How he thinks that people underestimate teenagers, and how he’s fed up with it.

Amen.

No encounter with an idol is complete without my making a fool of myself, so here’s my fangirl moment from the tour. I’m paraphrasing of course:

(in the signing line, after waiting about three hours to get to John and Hank)

John: (looks at the sticky notes bearibg my name on the books I’d brought to be signed) Hi there, Mandy.
Me: (freaking out) Hi!
Gabe: Check out our cool t-shirts.
John: Hey, the Hectic Glow!
Me: (thrusting t-shirt in his face) Look! We made one for you!
John: Oh, this is nice! Thanks guys! You’ll probably see me wearing it in a video sometime. (goes back to signing) And not because all of my clothes are dirty. But yeah, they are all dirty. And it doesn’t look like we’ll get to wash them in Dallas.
Me: YOU CAN WASH THEM AT MY HOUSE! (immediately wants to die)
John: Oh no, I wouldn’t want to impose…
Me: (grabs books and runs away)

You guys. I offered to do John Green’s laundry. At my house.

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