novelistpaulmosier

Shiny Happy Pediatric Cancer

As a novelist, I don’t ordinarily write about things that resemble my own life. I’ve written novels from the point of view of a fish, and adolescent females, but never a man resembling myself. But when my then 7 year old daughter Harmony was diagnosed with Rhabdomyosarcoma in February of 2016, I started seeing the lives of my family, responding to the unwelcome guest of cancer, as a story unfolding before me.

The resulting novel, Echo’s Sister, is not my family’s story precisely, but it is very much informed by it. Our cancer story concluded on May 2nd of 2018, when Harmony took her last breath and left her body. But the first draft of Echo’s Sister was finished in June of 2016, when Harmony was very much alive and her prognosis looked good. I think the ambiguous ending stands. We are always somewhere between birth and death, and the important thing is how we live and love in between. That’s the lesson taught me by the little girl on whom the book is based. In truth, this same little girl has led me onto a path of curiosity where the ideas of birth and death no longer mean what they once did to me, but that’s another subject, another story.

The response to the novel so far has been encouraging. There are six critically important reviews for middle grade books, and of the four that have come in for Echo’s Sister thus far, all have been positive, including a starred review from Booklist. But one of these important reviews thought that a flaw in the novel was the overly supportive community represented in Echo’s Sister, which they said bordered on optimistic fantasy or urban fairy tale. I have also seen reviews on Goodreads from individuals which, while positive, thought that somehow the tone was overly sunny.

I set the novel in lower Manhattan to distance it from my own life, which takes place in central Phoenix, in the Coronado Historic District. In actuality, the support my family received is downplayed, understated, grossly minimized versus what we actually experienced. The Coronado Historic District and the greater Coronado neighborhood is an eclectic mix of people, and as we like to say, we aren’t as swanky as Palmcroft, but we lead the city in love. When I read the review characterizing the community support as optimistic fantasy or urban fairy tale I laughed, and could not wait to share it in front of the assembled community at the book launch, where indeed they laughed as I thanked them for being literally unbelievable.

The neighborhood, and the surrounding community of which we are a part, was already special , but Harmony made us all better. She continues to do so. I wish that everyone experiencing something similar can have the sort of support that my family has experienced. I wish that nobody ever went through what we have, but for those who do, I hope they are surrounded by an army of love. I wish that our healthcare system was such that families didn’t have to worry about bankruptcy, and hunger, and homelessness, but as long as our system remains flawed, I wish that everyone could be surrounded by people of the sort my family is surrounded by, and loved by.

Whenever I write, I am guilty of trying to find the beauty in the lives we are suffering through. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to write differently.

Echo’s Sister ends up being two kinds of love letters: one, to a little girl with an incredible lust for life, who never let cancer get in the way of finding whatever enjoyment she could get in whatever moment she was in. If the first draft was finished two years later, we might have seen the character Echo hold open her eye– swollen shut with tumor mass — with one hand, so she could draw with the other. That’s the kind of lust for life displayed by my Harmony, our Harmony, and it will be my teacher as long as I walk this earth. Secondly, it’s a love letter and thank you note to humanity, for showing me how lovely it is capable of being. It’s been the silver lining of this experience for my family, and indeed all of my life, and any and all lives. It’s why the piano player walks the narrator of Echo’s Sister out of the subway station with the tune “Sunny Side of the Street.” In my neighborhood, in my community, that’s apparently both sides of the street.

Our community told us that they were amazed at the strength of my family as we experienced cancer. We told them we were only as strong as they made us, that our strength came from our community. They, in turn, said that they were only as strong as Harmony made them, that she inspired them to be their best selves. It’s been a beautiful, synergistic relationship. I hope that Echo’s Sister will be read widely not as an urban fairy tale, or optimistic fantasy, but as a document of what our best selves look like, and an inspiration to be that. You guys can be so amazing, and I’m never gonna stop trying to see you that way.

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Harmony by my side.

Dear Harmony–

It is the evening of Sunday, May twentieth, two thousand eighteen. I am standing in the courtyard of The Hive, where we have had so many good times together, and am surrounded by your family, friends, and neighbors. After a warm day, the evening is fittingly beautiful for a celebration of your life.

But this is stating the obvious, or telling you something you already know. For I feel you are here with me, with all of us.

In the days since you left your body, I have frequently visited your Instagram profile. Harmony Guacamole. It features photos of our dog, Oreo, along with other animals, family, and friends. You describe yourself as a piano player, which has been your persistent ambition, though your lessons with Mr Jay Melberg at Phoenix Center for the Arts were frequently interrupted by treatment and hospital stays. Your wonderful friend Cali also gave you lessons.

You describe yourself as an animal lover, which is certainly true. We have a rich photographic history of you adoring every variety of mammal and reptile, and especially your beloved Oreo. You even persuaded Mommy and Nana to give up eating fish, their last obstacles to becoming complete vegetarians.

On your Instagram profile you proudly call yourself a sis, and nobody has ever loved or looked up to their sister more than you have loved Eleri. And a dedicated guacamole lover, warning guac haters that you’re coming for them. As you are such a headstrong spirit, I would not bet against you making good on your word, so I encourage everyone in attendance to try some of the guacamole here this evening.

The one element of your Instagram bio that has given me pause is your calling yourself a cancer defeater. Frequently one sees obituaries that say so and so lost their battle with cancer. But I don’t know how often this is true, and I certainly don’t think it’s true of you, Harmony. After all, if I were to die of a heart attack tonight, you wouldn’t say Daddy lost his brief battle with a heart attack. All of us have to go sometime, we all must leave these bodies, our rides. But here’s the score: The cancer that attacked your body has been incinerated to ash. But you, Harmony, are very much present here among us.

When you had your first recurrence of cancer 18 months ago, you began visiting with Sangeet, the reiki practitioner who became our friend. The two of you immediately regarded each other as if you had known each other for several lifetimes. After meeting with you for the first time, Sangeet told the friend who introduced us to her that you, Harmony, would be a healer one day. That sounded interesting at the time, but we had no idea how true it would become.

The way you have brought people together, not only tonight but over time, and as a community– inspiring people to be their best, most loving and generous versions of themselves– has been a big part of the strange beauty of your 27 months being tested by cancer.

Why is this? Behind every door on the seventh floor at Phoenix Children’s Hospital is a child fighting for his or her life. But there’s been something special about your spirit, your courage, your lust for life, your endeavoring to find whatever fun could be found in every moment, your continued pursuit of the life you love as long as it was yours to live. You are the girl who in the last two weeks of this life held open your eye,–swollen shut with tumor mass– with one hand, so you could draw with the other.

In a strange way it was rhabdomyosarcoma that elicited this from you, Harmony. In the world we would choose, the world where the unwelcome guest of cancer never appeared at our door, you would be wrapping up your third grade year at Shaw Elementary, looking forward to a summer of adventure, just a funny, smart, talented, beautiful, kind-hearted nine year old. But cancer did come, and it tested you, it proved you, and you made a more beautiful display in 9 years and eight months than many of us will ever make, a firework exploding against a dark sky.

So, cancer defeater? Yes, I think. Nobody is having a party for rhabdomyosarcoma tonight, because celebrations are for those who have triumphed. And the triumph of your spirit is a monument for the rest of us to gaze at with wonder.

I avoid the use of the past tense in referring to you, Harmony. It’s not an instance of me being in denial– it just doesn’t feel accurate. It’s true that your bed is empty, it’s true that your physical form is now a box of ashes which I sometimes pick up and hold against my heart. But–

I’m a science-minded guy, and I’ve described myself that way for a long time. But I also don’t want to be guilty of ignoring evidence because of my inability to understand it.

In the last weeks of the life you shared with us, Mommy would read to you at bedtime from the book you loved so much, called “Goodnight, Rebel Girl,” which features short entries about women who have changed history. It was a heck of a thing for you, a nine year old, to express concern that you had not done enough to make a difference in this world. This tells me that, while you still spoke of your hopes for a future, you had a strong sense of what was happening to your body.

Twelve days before you passed, you said don’t worry, that you’d be fine. I hoped you meant that cancer would retreat and that you would live a long and happy life. But in my deepest, most fearful heart I hoped what you said– that you would be fine– would be true at least in some sense of the word. I decided that I trusted you and your words, whatever they would come to mean.

I still do. I trust that you are fine.

Three days before passing, you awoke and said, “This isn’t real.” This also is a heck of a thing for a nine year old to say, especially a nine year old with no religious, spiritual, philosophical or physics instruction under your belt. You were a blank slate with no spoon-fed expectations.

On the day that you passed, you were Harmony to your last breath. Your last utterance was “Ew!” when I noisily kissed your forehead. As your rate of oxygen absorption fell, Mommy, Eleri and I told you how much we love you, how proud we are of you, and we told you truthfully that you are a rebel girl who has inspired hundreds of people and made the world a better place. I promised that I would love Eleri as much as I love you, since you frequently expressed your worries about that. I told you that you’re so beautiful, that your beauty shone through the mask of cancer. We told you we would honor you on El Dia de los Muertos, and visit with you, and that you would always be with us, and part of us. You raised your beautiful, perfect eyebrows dramatically in response to everything we said, and squeezed our hands tightly to pass to us your abundant strength. You showed not a particle of fear. The last expressions we saw on your face were of joy and love.

We stayed with your body until the warmth had dissipated. Interestingly, and tellingly, the last warmth was located near and behind your right ear, corresponding to the parts of the brain which govern emotional understanding and emotional memory. I like to think that means you were feeling all the love we were pouring out, gathering it up to carry away with you.

I won’t talk about the unexplained phenomena since your passing. But your words, “this isn’t real,” have haunted me.

You speak to me most in the space between awake and asleep, and drifting into a nap one afternoon I was jolted awake by the opening words you wrote in response to a writing prompt: Imagine you are a tree that is about to be cut down. What would you think? Your response began, “I would think about all the things that might and might not happen.” This sounds very much like the quantum physics theory that everything which might happen is happening, that every instance of either/or is answered with “both,” resulting in the universe splitting into two copies where both possibilities occur, that every fork in the road is a quantum event creating new universes. It’s a very relatable idea to our lives, where there is the universe where I went to breakfast with Grandma and Grandpa and met Mommy at the restaurant where she was working as a server– 25 years to the day before the day you passed– and the other universe where instead I slept in. It’s easier to get one’s head around the idea that the universe we are standing in is expanding– and it is– than it is to fathom that the number of universes is functionally limitless, and ever expanding, which is also likely true.

If we back up in this family tree of universes, we arrive at the apparently original quantum event, the big bang. Physicists thinking about quantum physics get excited thinking about the hypothetical quantum computer, where the computing ability of all computers in all of the trillions of trillions of universes can be combined. I have no idea what one would compute with such a thing. But I think more beautiful than that, and more to the point of what you are trying to teach me, Harmony, is that all of our decisions are the quantum events which create new universes, which highlights the importance of how we choose to live our lives. If we dolly back, backing up in the family tree of quantum events, where our own consciousness goes from trillions of our own selves to just one, and further back to where there are not many selves, but just one self, I think it teaches me that we are all collectively the creator, split by countless quantum events into trillions of creation generators. This may seem like a mashup of listening to John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,” while thinking about Allen Ginsberg’s line “Holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness of the soul!” while taking a shower with Dr Bronner’s Magic Peppermint Soap and seeing the words “All One!” imprinted on the bar. And really it is all of those things. But it’s only all of those things because those people caught a glimpse of the same thing you have seen.

I believe that as you peered into the beyond and contemplated this building of universes, thinking of all the things that might and might not happen, your pure spirit is exemplified in your response to the writing prompt about the tree who is about to be cut down– your words, “I would want to be remembered as a good person-– I mean, tree” – I believe that what you saw taught you that it matters what we dream. It matters what kind of trees we are, and what sort of branches we grow.

Harmony, please stay by my side, please remain my strength and my teacher. Keep reminding me, and everyone here, to dream beautiful dreams. And together we can create universes with love and Harmony, and trees, and the best guacamole ever.

Playing through the pain.

In February of 2016, a sudden overbite in the mouth of my beautiful 7 year old daughter, Harmony, led to a diagnosis of Rhabdomyosarcoma, a cancer which strikes 5 children per million. 27 months later, Harmony’s bed is empty.

While Harmony was still in the hospital with her initial diagnosis, I pitched the idea for the second book of my contract with HarperCollins to be a novel informed by Harmony’s experience, and the experience of our family. My editor agreed, so long as the novel was from the point of view of the cancer fighter’s older sister. So I began work on the novel that would become Echo’s Sister. I wrote ahead of our actual experience, and the novel ends six months into Echo’s battle. I hoped I would be done with it– cancer and the book. Writing it was a good way to process what we experienced as a family, a subject I would never have imagined myself touching in a story. Cancer sucks. I never wanted to read about it and I certainly didn’t think I’d want to write about it. But write it I did, turning in the first draft about four months into Harmony’s cancer journey.

In the summer of 2016 I began work on my next middle grade novel, 30 Parks, about a girl whose father takes her on a tour of all 30 Major League Baseball parks in a desperate attempt at repairing their relationship. It progressed well until our family of four went on holiday to an Airbnb in the Ocean Park neighborhood of Santa Monica. It was a beautiful time of good memories. Harmony was in remission, and we had every reason to think we would enjoy a long future with her. The sense of place– seaside town, ice cream shop, boogie boarding– pushed its way into my consciousness, and then two characters appeared– gothic Juillet and prototypical California girl Summer, and the novel Summer and July was born. I thought I could work on both it and 30 Parks at the same time, but I couldn’t really return to 30 Parks until Summer and July was finished. Summer and July came quickly, joyfully, and the first draft was nearly complete when Harmony experienced her first recurrence in November 2016.

Harmony fought hard, and refused to let cancer interfere with her getting as much from life as she could. She taught us, lifted us, and left her physical form fearlessly after telling us she would be fine, that this isn’t real. The bravest person I’ve ever known, and the wisest, is my younger daughter, Harmony. She will forever be 9 years, 7 months and 26 days old, but I’ll never impact the lives of others as much as she did in her short time in this dimension.

In truth I’ve been nearly unable to write for 18 months. My wonderful agent once called me “prolific,” but new words have been a struggle. It isn’t writer’s block– it’s been an inability to turn from the fear and the worry. Harmony kept on living, creating, but I could not.

Harmony created a breathtaking, funny body of artwork. She was also very much a consumer of novels and graphic novels. And so it is time for me to get back to the work of creating novels for the Harmonies of the world. It’s what my Harmony, our Harmony, would expect of me. So tonight I will open my laptop, find the in-progress manuscript of 30 Parks, and give it my best, if only for a few moments. Just to see if I still can.

I expect it will come. Two nights before her passing, sleeping in the chair beside Harmony’s hospital bed, I was awoken by her talking in her sleep. The last two words of the utterance were “Daddy’s book.” Two mornings later, the day she passed, I emailed my editor and found that it wasn’t too late to dedicate Echo’s Sister to Harmony Sea Mosier. Within three hours, we held her as she took her last breath, without a particle of fear. She squeezed my hand, I think to pass her strength to me. I will try to be worthy of hers.

I love you Harmony, and I’m so, so proud of you.

Characters: Gay by nature or choice?

The following is my response to an email from a woman who kindly beta-read the novel I have recently completed– the middle grade “Summer and July.” Her feedback was thoughtful, intelligent and complimentary. To my surprise she said she enjoyed it in spite of her being ethically opposed to the nature of the love presented in the story, and her worry that my story would contribute to the “normalization” of such love. Below is my response to her. I omit my opening remarks.

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Notes on your notes: The “men in gray suits” is actually one of the several colorful terms in surfer lingo for sharks. Another good one is “landlord,” which is their term for great white sharks. Those don’t appear on the beaches of Santa Monica, or they would have been a good inclusion. But since that didn’t come through to you as a reader, perhaps I need to expand on that exchange. “Noah” is another term for sharks, from the Aussie cockney rhyming scheme of “Noah’s Ark” rhyming with “shark.” Similarly Aussie surfers call Americans “seppos” because “Septic tank” rhymes with “yank.” It’s kinda bizarre.

I, too, was happy with Summer’s method of giving herself permission to feel something other than happy, enthusiastic and optimistic– putting on Juillet’s clothing and makeup. I didn’t plan it– I don’t plan anything in writing, really. I don’t think I am capable of doing something as artful or lovely as that, but as a servant of the muse, I think I do a pretty good job of staying out of her way. I don’t feel like I’m the creator of a story so much as I am the first person to experience it.

I feel the same way about characters. I don’t expect that I’ll change your mind about seeing same-sex love as being somehow wrong, but I’ll make my argument anyway. I have never designed a character, and if I did I think they’d be wooden or cliched. I feel like they are introduced to me by the universe, and I disagree with writers who think that I as an author need to know my characters completely. In fact I feel like I only know them as much as they are willing to reveal themselves to me. An interviewer once asked if I ever found myself disappointed when I finished writing a novel and realized that my characters weren’t real, and my reply was “I don’t think I agree that they aren’t real.”

But I didn’t set out to write a same-sex love story. I think that every story is a love story– the only question is what kinds of love. Summer and July was born from the sense of place of a seaside town with an ice cream shop and boogie boarding, then the characters walked into the scene. But I don’t feel like I determined their sexual orientation any more than I designed the bluebird metaphor. Which I did not design. I’m just witness to it. My understanding of Juillet and Summer, watching them act, is that they are not necessarily drawn exclusively to their own gender. It seems like their affection is specific to the individual case– for Juillet, Summer, and for Summer, Juillet. They’re probably both surprised that their first kiss was with another girl. They’re both young and figuring themselves out.

I don’t choose the sexual orientation of my characters, but if I did, I wouldn’t apologize for representing same sex loves as being as legitimate and potentially beautiful as heterosexual loves. And I would suggest that maybe instead of worrying about texts that “normalize” same sex loves, perhaps you should worry about texts that vilify or demonize love between two men or two women, which has always existed. It’s hard for me to even imagine what motivation lies behind such persecution other than some antique need for maximum regeneration of the species to swell the ranks of armies and churches. It is interesting that you use Plato to support your argument about our need to use care in what we teach our young, when Plato said that the only true type of love was that which existed between two men. Of course I disagree with Plato in this respect, as I think that the love between a man and a woman can be pretty profound, too.

I’m sure that– while gay people have appeared in previous novels of mine– Summer and July will open me to a new level of potential criticism and rejection for elements other than my ability to tell a story. I didn’t wish for this, and it doesn’t represent any kind of bravery on my part– that distinction is reserved for those who wrote about the love between members of the same sex in decades past. I’ve got a left-handed female character named Lefty in my work-in-progress, but likewise people in centuries past have fought the stigma of people who find themselves preferring using their left hands, so there is no heroism for me there, either.

Happily, though thinking ill of same sex love still exists in the world I live in, having a contract with a Big Five publisher I have learned that, generally, in the world of children’s books, publishers have moved beyond the argument. Though opposition to same sex love still exists, my editorial group does not wish to dignify such opposition with space on the page. Nobody in a middle grade book written by me and published by my publisher is going to look askance at two girls or two boys falling for each other.

For me It was easy to make the “normal” heterosexual choice. Girls and women have always been attractive and fascinating to me. Though I didn’t set out to write a story featuring a same-sex love, the idea that maybe some kid will fail to kill him or herself because I didn’t resist presenting a story in which affection and romantic love between two members of the same sex is pretty much the most adorable love story ever– I’ve got to say I like the idea of being on that side of the equation, and of history. And all I have to do is let the characters be who they are. Take them as they are, and love them as they came to me. I hope you’ll consider this position.

 

Author Spotlight

A great interview by my friend Michelle from the Young Adult Authors Rendezvous!

YA Author Rendezvous

An interview with author Paul Mosier

By: Michelle Lynn

  1. What are the titles of your work and can you tell us a bit about them?

Completed novels begin with Breakfast At Tuli’s, which I self-published in I think 2013. paulIt’s for grown-ups, and about a young woman with a compulsion to have relations with men she finds pathetic or repulsive. It’s narrated by her pet fish, who is in love with her and who is grappling with the hopelessness of his own situation while waiting for Tuli to find happiness. It’s very sweet when you get past the premise. My second novel is called Genre, but I haven’t done anything with it. It examines the origin of characters and the author’s ability to control them while poking fun at writers, writer’s groups, agents and genre fiction. The third is the first I wrote for a younger audience, and is called…

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Review of Reviews

Review of Reviews Having written a book called Train I Ride, having found an agent who believes in it, and her subsequently finding a publisher who wanted to pay good money for it, I still wondered…

Source: Review of Reviews

Review of Reviews

Review of Reviews

Having written a book called Train I Ride, having found an agent who believes in it, and her subsequently finding a publisher who wanted to pay good money for it, I still wondered whether it wasn’t all a big mistake, a hoax, a conspiracy of kindness. Maybe my mother had paid some people to pretend to like my writing? I mean, the book features a chain-smoking Chihuahua and an invisible monkey, is named for a song sung by Elvis, and kisses the hand of Alan Ginsberg. And is drenched in sadness but is being marketed to children. How can this work?

Fortunately there are reviewers to sort things out, and when HarperCollins began sending out galleys, or Advance Review Copies, as well as making the novel available to librarians, booksellers and reviewers electronically, I anxiously awaited their reactions.

One of the first reviews was a very kind one from a woman in New Hampshire. On Goodreads, a website that allows users to share their thoughts about books, she gave it five stars and compared it to a book named Dicey’s Song, which I had never heard of but which sounded very nice and like the sort of book I might have read in grade school if I had not been too girl-crazy and basketball-obsessed to do any pleasure reading during my formative years.

Goodreads also allows authors and publishers to do giveaways of galley copies to promote a book in advance of its release. I did a couple of giveaways of galley copies beginning in summer, six months before the release. Each time, as many as 1400 people from around the world entered for a chance to win the four copies I gave away. Unfortunately two of the winners were in China, which, as it turns out, is not a cheap place to send a book. I do hope the recipients enjoyed it. HarperCollins limited eligible entrants to people living in the US and Canada, which may have been wise of them, even though they have deeper pockets than I do, and even though they have a presence in many countries around the world, and acquired the book’s rights for the entire world.

I wonder if the moon would count as part of World territory, too? The moon would probably say no.

One of the recipients of a giveaway galley, a man in Wisconsin, was not a reader but rather a seller who immediately put it for sale on Amazon. Though this was annoying and disappointing, at least he pretended to think it was a nice book when describing it in the sales pitch he used.

Looking at the people who have entered the giveaways is fascinating, as is looking at the people who have added the book on their “to read” list on Goodreads. For the 1045 people who currently have it listed as “to read,” two weeks and two days before the book is released, it appears that my strategy of writing in an attempt to win the favor of women– a pathetic bent of mine since my days as a junior high-schooler, when I didn’t read much myself but did write to try to please girls– is working out well. I have always felt that I was writing to a female audience, and the majority of the people requesting galley copies or indicating interest in reading are women and girls. This may be because I have written several novels without any guns, violent deaths or monster trucks, which is my primitive view of the ingredients for a successful bropus, which is a word I have just now made up, combining the popular “bro” with the heavier and more dignified “opus.”

More surprising are the other assorted beings and objects that have expressed interest in Train I Ride. Looking at the profile pictures on Goodreads, those who are lining up to read the book and then tell me I’m okay include 61% females, 16% menfolk, 7% multiple people sharing one name, 6% buildings or landscapes, 5% dogs of unspecified gender, 4% cats, 3% hamsters or gerbils, 3% birds, 3% mixed-species associations, 3% inanimate objects, 2% sports franchises, 2% cartoon characters,  1% disturbing images of darkness, and 14% other, including one mushroom cloud and two varieties of edible mushrooms. The preceding accounting may not add up to precisely 100 percent, but you get the idea.

Equally surprising is that a gerbil is able to read a novel and then write a review. Though judging by his or her assessment I think it’s clear that he or she is not my intended audience. In my thoughtful response I told him or her that he or she should stick to eating alfalfa pellets and reading the newspaper scraps lining his or her little prison.

Happily, aside from the gerbil the early reviews have been nice, especially the six that matter most. Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, School Library Journal, The Horn Book Review and The Center for Children’s Books have all given Train I Ride positive reviews. The first three of the above gave it a starred review, which caused HarperCollins to decide to spend some money on advertising the book, something that isn’t normally done for an unknown author who has written a sad book for children which includes a chain-smoking Chihuahua, an invisible monkey, and lots of people who were dead before the story started, including a poet and a singer/member of the royalty who sung a song which names the novel.

Now I just need to know what you think of it.

Actually, I don’t really care. I’m asking for the protagnist, Rydr. She’s really insecure.

Juggling the Dream

 A lot has happened since my last post on this blog. When I think of it, it’s pretty staggering.

Our seven year old daughter Harmony– who turns eight tomorrow– was diagnosed with Rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare form of cancer, in February. She has since undergone two 12-week courses of chemotherapy, before and after surgery to remove the tumor on the roof of her mouth, along with her four upper front teeth.

That experience gave rise to the Middle-Grade novel Echo’s Sister, which I wrote from February through May. The story is from the point of view of a 12 year old girl whose little sister is diagnosed with Rhabdomyosarcoma, and while it isn’t the story of what our family and our daughters experienced, it is very much informed by what we went through. It was a new thing for me to write about something that so closely resembled my own life, but I found it to be useful as a way to process all of it.

During this time I was simultaneously receiving positive news and updates about the cover and marketing plans for Train I Ride, the first book of my contract. Seeing all of the people involved in producing a book in the Big 5 publishing world hard at work on one of my own has been fascinating and surreal.

While waiting for my editor to read and respond to Echo’s Sister I began work on a novel that my agent and I were both excited about, tentatively titled Thirty Parks, about a girl whose father takes her on a tour of all thirty major-league baseball parks in a desperate attempt at reconciliation or relationship-building. I was making good progress on it when my wife and two daughters took a week-long holiday to the Ocean Park neighborhood of Santa Monica. During that time, doing no writing, going to no writer’s groups, I found myself seduced by the sense of place in the neighborhood where we stayed. Seaside town, boogie boarding and scoops of ice cream gave birth to an idea I have been working on ever since our return, called Summer and July. It’s a summer friends/summer crush story, and so far it has been making me very happy to write it. Of course my hope is that HarperCollins will exercise their option for a third book and acquire Summer and July, though that’s a long way off, and would most likely be a 2019 release date if it were to happen.

A week ago my editor informed me that she likes Echo’s Sister well enough for it to become the second book of my contract, provided I can make the editorial changes she thinks are necessary for it to become the story she hopes it can be. She is hoping I can do the story revisions in the next six weeks.

Meanwhile, I am also becoming more involved with the promotion of Train I Ride– communicating with the bookstore– Changing Hands– that will be selling at the release party in late January, along with the gallery owner, and trying to set up appearances at Barnes and Noble. Also I am hoping to make appearances at schools in the coming months. And there are things like giveaways of galley copies of Train I Ride on Goodreads to keep me busy. I am excited that Ami Polonsky, my agency sister and author of Gracefully Grayson (which my older daughter and I adored) and the forthcoming Threads, has read Train I Ride and kindly written a lovely blurb for it which will be used in promotion.

I find myself in the position of promoting book #1, editing book #2, and writing what I hope will become book #3 with HarperCollins. My agent tells me I should begin seeing the most important reviews in the next month, which are the first exterior indicator of whether my January Big 5 debut will be a success. I feel like I’ve got many more books in me, and that I am becoming a better writer every day. So here’s hoping– on the eve of Harmony’s eighth birthday– for many more years of happiness.

 

 

Train I Edit

Everything about the experience of having a book deal is new to me, and I have greeted all of it eagerly, including the editing process.

My first extensive experience with editing was with my first novel, Breakfast At Tuli’s. After writing it during NaNoWriMo in November of 2011, and then spending months revising and expanding it, I spent a reasonable sum for the services of Jacob Shaver, a friend I met at Lux, the coffeehouse I frequented most at that. He was, as I said, reasonably priced and talented, and did a good job helping me make it better. He also introduced me to the Central Phoenix Writer’s Workshop, which has been indispensable to my development as a writer.

Now, having been paid for a couple of books, one of which I have not yet written, I found myself waiting to hear what my editor didn’t quite like about the first draft, with the arrival of the editorial letter.

Working with Jacob, I could take or leave any suggestion he made freely: I was paying him, and while he made a lot of useful suggestions, when I rejected an idea I did so without fear.

But having a book deal, having sold the rights to the book being edited, what did it mean when my editor had a suggestion I didn’t agree with?

 

Since I had lunch with my editor, along with my agent and the editorial director back in October, I knew that there would not be a lot of cutting. They said that it was refreshing to work with someone whom they would not be asking to subtract 20,000 words. Instead, they said they would be asking me to add a few thousand.

When the first editorial letter arrived in early November, it looked like this: a couple of pages of narrative describing desired changes in broad strokes, accompanied by the manuscript with sections of the text highlighted, notes in the left margin.

It took a little while for me to understand my editor’s thinking. Rydr, my thirteen year-old protagonist, is a reluctant, unreliable narrator, but I needed for her to spill her story a little more completely without being untrue to her nature and her character. My editor has also helped me elicit a greater depth of feeling in places. I probably would not have believed that I could add 25% to the length without detracting from its economy of words, but I think that is what has happened. She has helped me to make a story that I believe will be ultimately a better, more satisfying version of what they found appealing when they green-lighted it. And that, as I have come to realize, is really what a talented editor can do: Like a producer for a piece of music, a director for a film, a conductor for an orchestra, the editor’s talent lies in her ability to make a story the best story it can be, and to bring out the best version of the writer the writer can express.

What I have learned through the process so far, through the work and through speaking with my agent and my editor, is this:

We are all on the same team, wanting to make Train I Ride the best book it can be.

At the end of the day I am the author, and nobody is going to make me write something I hate.

I have an enormous amount of respect and trust for my editor and the editorial group she is a part of. I am in the best hands, with the writers they have worked with and the books they have put forth, including the 2015 National Book Award winner in the category of Literature for Young People.

There are times when I have changed something I was happy with because I trust my editor. And there are times when she has let something I love stay as it is because she trusts me.

I think that she and I are working well together, and I hope that we can make lots of great books together.

Holy Crap I Have A Book Deal

After wrapping up the petite Train I RIde in April, having written it over just a few months, writing every day and workshopping it on average three nights each week, I made a proof copy for my older daughter to read. I also dutifully began sending query emails to literary agents.

My first novel, Breakfast At Tuli’s, is something I’m very proud of. It affected some people, including myself, very profoundly, but I collected approximately 125 rejection letters from agents that I sent query letters to. For those of you unfamiliar with what a query is, publishers will only look at novels submitted by literary agents, and literary agents must first be approached via a query letter in which the writer introduces him or herself and the book in question. Three and a half years after beginning my first novel, I had collected 200 rejections from agents for my first three completed works. Wrapping up my fourth novel, Train I RIde, I didn’t have the same hope that I did when I first queried Breakfast At Tuli’s. I had accepted the idea that writing novels that some people thought were really good wasn’t necessarily enough to reach a wider audience, but that I couldn’t be stopped from producing a physical book that I was proud of, and that could reach the hands and hearts of a limited audience.

In spite of my lack of enthusiasm for querying agents, and mountains of disappointment dating back to my days sending out crazy-ass short stores to literary journals in the 90’s, I began crafting queries for Train I RIde and emailing them to agents on April 26, 2015. I tried to be smarter at querying than in the past: For my previous three novels I had often sent my manuscript, or portions of it, to agents who represented books that I’d feel embarrassed to be seen holding.

I started with an agent who had asked for exclusivity in considering Breakfast At Tuli’s three years earlier, and who said she loved my voice in rejecting it. After all, if she liked my voice then, she might like it now, and her encouraging rejection has more than a little to do with my continued writing. I never did hear back on my query for Train I RIde.

My first rejection came for my fourth query, on the same day I sent it. Quick responses are always appreciated.

The first agent to say yes to the query, meaning “sure, send me the manuscript,” was the tenth agent I sent it to, the day after I queried her, the sixteenth day after I began sending queries. This was Wendy Schmalz of the Wendy Schmalz agency. She said she should be able to read it within four weeks. I sent it off, fingers crossed, and turned my attention to who else I could send it to. Meanwhile, to my surprise I had begun work on a follow-up to Train I RIde. I am suspicious of sequels as being done for the wrong reasons, but I was waking up with scenes of my protagonist’s next adventures playing in my head.

I continued sending queries to a total of 20 agents, and meanwhile developed a greater desire to be represented by the agent who held my manuscript. Reading interviews with her, looking at what writers who worked with her said about her, her nearly 30 years experience, the great books and authors she represented– Wendy became my most hoped-for, dream agent.

On day 29, having not heard from her, I sent Wendy an email telling her that I had developed a major author-agent crush on her, and how anxious I was to hear from her. She apologized for not yet getting to it, and said that she would have it read by the following Friday.

The next Wednesday I received an email that began I like TRAIN I RIDE very much. She said that if I was willing to make minor revisions– which took only minutes for me to make– she would like to discuss representation. On Friday the 19th of June I woke up early to speak to her on the phone in New York, and she offered to represent me and my work.

In the next week and a half, we discussed what else I was working on, and she suggested I put aside the follow-up to Train I RIde, as she said she could not sell a sequel until the first is sold. She asked me how to pronounce my last name, and it occurred to me that she would be calling the editors she submitted the manuscript to. It also occurred to me that I knew very little about the process of making a book beyond writing it.

On June 30 Wendy submitted the manuscript to four of the five major publishers, and told me the names of the editors she sent it to. It was exhilarating to think of these four women reading and considering my work, and I learned as much as I could about them online. Wendy said that since the publishing industry slows considerably in Summer, we might not hear anything for 8-10 weeks. SHe said that good news would always come by phone, but that emails were not necessarily bad news. She also said that my novel was not an easy sell, that character driven stories never are, but I hoped that her belief in it was a good indication that others would feel the same.

We exchanged a couple of emails in the next 10 days, and in one she signed off with hopefully I’ll have news for you soon. I wondered whether that was just a standard salutation, or whether she actually had reason to believe that she would have news for me. On Wednesday the 15th of July I tumbled out of bed to answer a call from Wendy in New York. She led with the bad news, that (Little, Brown) and Penguin had passed. Then she said that both (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux) and HarperCollins wanted it. She talked about what that meant, gave me options, and I said what I truly felt, that I was entirely confident in her making the best choice for me and Train I Ride. She went back to both publishers, and called me later in the day while I was stuck on an unusually long phone call with a client for my day job. When I listened to her voice mail 90 minutes later, it said that she had really good news. I called her back and was informed that HarperCollins had made a pre-empt bid– which is when a publisher tries to keep a book from going to auction by making a generous offer that they hope cannot be refused– for a two-book deal, with an option for a third, with a generous advance. It was easy to tell how much enjoyment Wendy got out of informing me that she had sold my first book– or rather, books– to a major publisher. She told me that it demonstrated a lot of confidence in me that they were willing to buy a second book that they didn’t even know I was necessarily capable of producing.

The next day I awoke to emails in my queue from the editorial director of HC Children’s, and the editor working with me, telling me how excited they are to be working with me, that they cried while reading the novel. It’s hard to describe the feeling I’ve had ever since. I’ve looked forward to every part of the process– the contract arriving, being asked my thoughts about the cover, for a book that will not be out until 2017. The fact that there are art directors and artists and editors and marketing people concerning themselves with this character, this protagonist that I love, and her story, and that they will help bring her to an audience all around the world, is the stuff dreams are made of. I am meeting Wendy, my editor and the editorial director for lunch in Manhattan in October, which will be more surreal than the advance money arriving two weeks ago. During all of this, what I am most grateful for is to have been able to share my happiness with others, including the writers whom I have labored alongside at writer’s groups, and to see in them the happiness I feel reflected back at me. Thank you, everyone, for being happy for me. May we all feel it at once some day.