What THE WALLS AROUND US Means to Me

The Walls Around UsMy new book, The Walls Around Us, was published today! I would be so thrilled and honored if you considered buying it this week from your favorite independent bookstore or ordering it through your local library—first-week sales do help authors so much, that’s the truth. But most of all, however you may get your hands on it, from a good friend, from an enemy, from an amazon, or from a Dumpster, I do hope it speaks to you somehow. I hope you like it.

This is a book that I wrote for myself, wholly and completely. I wrote it for the girl I was, back some time ago, and the person I am today. I wrote it because I needed to.

I wrote it because I reached an ugly place inside myself full of itching doubts that made me question every single idea I was having and every single line I was writing, and I wanted to free myself somehow. How ironic, then, to write a book that takes place mostly inside a prison to make yourself feel free. But it did. It shook something loose in me.

Last night, if you happened to be at my launch event at my favorite local bookstore McNally Jackson, where I was being interviewed by one of my favorite authors and people, Libba Bray—damn, am I lucky, damn—you may have heard Libba call this my “middle fingers book.” She says this because she witnessed me at the café table talking about writing whatever the hell I wanted without boundaries or censors and raising my middle fingers high to the ceiling while saying so, a funny image, yes. But also, it’s true. That’s what this book is for me.

me and libba

(Libba Bray and me at the launch of THE WALLS AROUND US on March 23 at McNally Jackson)

Sometimes you have to stand up for yourself in the face of all that doubt and so-called expectation and write the book you most want to write. Even if—especially if—you’re scared to do it.

The book you’d go out with in a flash of fire and smoke if you could.

The book that has no regrets.

The book that is as weird and wild and yourself as can be.

That’s The Walls Around Us for me.

I risked a lot—and now here I am, with it out in the world and no take-backs, and I feel good, I feel proud, I feel pretty OK.

One of the strangest things to realize is: When I gave myself permission to write simply for myself… When I told myself to go wild, go crazy, go all-out and see what happens, THIS is the book that seems to get more attention than my previous books. It was named the #1 Kids’ Indie Next Pick by the American Booksellers Association for Spring 2015! An Amazon Best YA Book of the Month for March! It has gotten five starred reviews!

???

Isn’t that some kind of life lesson, you think? That we should be honest and brave and so completely ourselves with the novels we’re putting out in the world. That we shouldn’t try to write what we think other people want us to write, what the industry is looking for, what readers supposedly want from us, what the world at large says. We should tell our own stories, with conviction. We should be fearless and risky and wild and true.

Even when we’re scared.

I’m so grateful for everything that’s happened with The Walls Around Us so far. (And stunned. And flummoxed. And thrilled. And… and… and I could go on!)

1509708_10153172049491346_1363674085147565626_n

(My publisher shared this wall of WALLS today!)

 

For more about the book

Thank you so much to all the wonderful, wonderful people who have been so very supportive of me and this book. I will not forget. I am so thankful.

In another post, once I have more photos, I will share with you how my first-ever-ever launch event with special guest Libba Bray went! (SPOILER: IT WAS AMAZING.) But for now, I will breathe. And be grateful for every last moment.

And try to be brave again with my next book.

cookie and pillow 610

(At my launch event with one of the cookies my publisher surprised me with, and a pillow my mom made for me!)

 

When You Start Writing (Again) Only for You

Something happens when you publish a novel for the first time. And I mean after the shock and thrill of selling the book and all those glorious and dazed dream-worthy moments leading up to when the book hits shelves, all tangled up with your hopes and expectations and the promises you may have been led to believe… I mean after, when people outside your writer friends and your agent and editor and significant other and the people who work at your publisher start to read the book. When you see how it performs in the world. How it’s taken, remembered or forgotten. How it’s interpreted, or misinterpreted.

All these other voices start seeping in. Critics. Reviewers. Bloggers. Readers. Goodreads-enthusiasts. Tweeters. Screamers. Whisperers. People at events who ask kind of odd questions. People who sound disappointed. People who seem confused. People who say beautiful things—even and especially the people who say beautiful things.

Maybe this is just me, but I started hearing a lot of voices after Imaginary Girls was published. When I was writing the next book, 17 & Gone, I was hearing them. During every draft, on every page, I was hearing these outside voices, considering their expectations and their confusions and their hopes and their dislikes and likes and food preferences. The little cocoon I used to write in was burst open and slashed by fingernails. I was never alone. My mind was never quiet, even at a writers colony. I couldn’t stop hearing all the things I would do wrong, would screw up.

I fought this and finished the book and it was published… But the experience changed me. I vowed to never put myself in that place again.

When I was writing The Walls Around Us, I decided to be simply and only myself. This led to me choosing a new publisher: Algonquin Young Readers. And this led me also to be honest with myself about what I wanted to do this time. I wasn’t writing for recognition. I wasn’t writing for commercial success, or should I say “success” because the idea of that changes with every new hoop I jump through. I stopped caring so much—honestly, I began to not care much at all—what would be expected of me from my next book or wanted from me or what would disappoint. I wanted to write this story the best way I could, and nothing more.

Like I’ve said before, I wrote this book for me. Completely and entirely for myself, in the way I wanted it to be. And in these past months while I’ve stayed quiet on this blog, I was revising and working with my brilliant editor who helped me reach my vision, and the book was finished, polished, sent off, and copyedited. Next there will be ARCs.

The other week, while I was reviewing the copyedits, I allowed myself one last read-through of the manuscript. A close, careful read. A scrutinizing read. A chance to pick myself apart and be honest about how I felt about what I’d written.

I kept my ears open for those voices I remembered flooding me during the writing of 17 & Gone.

…But there was a clearer voice. Mine. And I finished my last read of my book with this strange, new, itchy feeling inside me.

Satisfaction.

I’ve never felt so content with anything I’ve written—EVER.

I found this note on the last page of the copyedited manuscript:

Note_from_CE_large

 

It was wonderful to see that, and I will never forget it.

But the best feeling was knowing I stayed true to myself… and after a whole ton of work, because yes I did work hard on this, I was able to make the book into everything I’d wanted it to be. I stood there on the creaky, slanted, wooden floor in my living room, and I felt myself in my own skin, the weight of my well-read pages in my hands, and I told myself to remember this moment.

No matter what happens after (after the book comes out, after, after, after), I have this.

Remember the good things, writer friends. Hold them close. Keep them safe. Try not to let the outside voices drown them out.

This Is the Week Your Book Comes Out: A Haunting Blog Series, a Giveaway, a Frenzied Whisper in Your (My) Head

It’s bright and early on a Monday morning and I can hear this low little whisper in the back cobwebbed corner of my brain. Psst, it goes, trying to get my undistracted attention. This is the week your book comes out.

The voice isn’t taunting me as some voices do: This is the week my book comes out!

17 & Gone comes out on Thursday.

THIS Thursday! March 21. I can see the date on my calendar!

Since this is the 17 & Gone release week, I wanted to do something to mark the moment. To celebrate. And what is one thing I like doing, as many of my blog readers will attest to? Running a little blog series and inviting guest authors to take part.

17 & Gone is the story of Lauren, a girl haunted by a host of missing girls. All she knows is the girls are all 17—like she is—and they’re all gone without a trace. It’s this haunting that consumes Lauren and propels the story, as she races to find out why these lost girls are contacting her, and if this means she could be next.

In keeping with the idea of hauntings, I’ve asked some YA authors I know to share posts answering this question:

What haunted YOU when you were 17?

Starting today, I’ll be featuring some of these posts here on my blog—and some of the authors will be responding to this question on their own blogs. I’ll be sure to share those links here, too! And of course I’ll reveal my own disturbed psyche when I was 17, because how could I ask other authors to if I won’t? (To make sure I was being true to my 17-year-old self, I even dug out my old typewritten poems and stories from that year… they are… gutting, embarrassing, and more revealing than I ever imagined.) A peek:

(An untitled poem I wrote about a boy who didn’t deserve a poem, circa 1992.)

(An untitled poem I wrote about a boy who didn’t deserve a poem, circa 1992.)

I also want to open the question up to you, if you feel inspired to reveal what haunted (obsessed, bothered, consumed) you when you were 17. 

And by “you,” I mean everyone and anyone—my writer friends and my other creative friends. I mean readers and book bloggers and people who’ve lived through that year of being 17, which is probably most of you, and who see this post and think you may want to respond to the question. What haunted YOU at 17? If you write a response to this prompt, share the link with me by commenting here or by tweeting at me and I’ll include it in my round-up of all the posts later this week. And in thanks, I’ll also send you some 17 & Gone swag if you’d like some!

The first post in the series will be up today, and it’s by an author who sure knows how to unsettle her readers: Libba Bray. She’s away in Italy this week (my breath caught as I typed those words! Away in Italy!), but she kindly gave me this post before she left so I could share it with you for 17 & Gone’s release. Thank you so much, Libba!

And thank you in advance to all the other generous YA authors who will be taking part in revealing pieces of their haunted pasts.


THE VOICE IN MY HEAD SAYS I SHOULDN’T LEAVE YOU WITHOUT A GIVEAWAY:

Okay, I won’t. Do you want to win a signed hardcover of 17 & Gone, some swag, and a hardcover of Imaginary Girls to keep it company? Every commenter on the “Haunted at 17” guest posts here on this site this week will be entered to win.

…And you can also enter by filling out this entry form.

The giveaway is international. The giveaway opens right now, this second, and closes 11:59 p.m. EST on Thursday, March 28. I’ll pick two winners from among the commenters and the form entries.


 17&Gone_thumbMORE 17 & GONE NEWS:

  • If you’ll be in New York City for the NYC Teen Author Festival, come see me and get a signed copy of the book! Full schedule here—look out for me on Friday, March 22 at the Union Square Barnes & Noble or Saturday, March 23 at McNally Jackson or Sunday, March 24 at Books of Wonder!
  • The YA blog WORD for Teens has interviewed me about 17 & Gone. Here’s what I think about blogging as an author, why boy characters are so tricky for me to name, and moving to Mars (random, but I really do think about it).
  • I shared the places where I wrote 17 & Gone—with photos!—including a cluttered corner of my apartment, two artist colonies, my favorite café, and my beautiful writing space overlooking lower Broadway. Check out my In Search of the Write Space post on Meagan Spooner’s site, and be sure to enter the giveaway… I think you have just one day left to enter!
  • I’m touched and honored to say that Courtney Summers is holding a giveaway for 17 & Gone right now—she’s been so kind and supportive, which means extra-much to me because I admire her like whoa! She’s giving away 17 & Gone (along with an ARC of the anthology Defy the Dark). Enter her Facebook giveaway.
  • If you’ve pre-ordered 17 & Gone or plan to buy it this week (thank you so much for your support! it means the world to me!) and can’t be in New York City to get it signed, I have a way to sign your book from afar. Leave a comment on this photo on my Facebook author page and I may just mail you a signed and personalized bookplate.

NEXT UP…

What haunted Libba Bray when she was 17?

All About the Writing

motherfuckerLet me just start off by saying I hope this doesn’t sound morbid.

But I was reading up on a medical test I am having next week, and what the test is looking for, and realized there is a very slim chance it could be something serious, and of course being who I am my imagination ran off wild with the possibilities, and then I guess I found myself thinking of my life. Of what I’ve accomplished and what I still want to do. Mainly: what I still want to write.

I thought how I wish I could infuse my usual life with that sense of urgency. Because none of us know how much time we have left. And all these things I find myself distracted by worry over (book-and-career-related things; future-related things; debt-related things), I wish all of that could step aside so I could think only about the writing. And, really, why not shove it all aside? Why not make it so? (In pockets, where I can make time for it.)

Also, symbolically, my birthday is next week. This may or may not have something to do with these Big Thoughts I’ve been having.

So what am I waiting for?

If you’re holding back on something—saying you’ll write it later, you’ll do it later—what happens if later is right now?

In Which I Fail (Most of) My Resolutions… But End 2012 on a Good Note (Really)

Fair warning: This post will be tinged with a sheen of failure—even though I do feel kind of hopeful right now, and I’ll explain why at the end.

How many of us made resolutions for 2012 that we didn’t keep? How many of us said we’d do things this year—write certain things, cease bad habits, start new ones?—and here we are, days from the end of the year, realizing how little we became the people we wanted to be?

I’m not alone in this, I’m sure. I always have high, lofty goals for myself and I rarely measure up to them.

So, hi. Want some honesty? Want to see into my pathetic little brain during one of its more idealistic tantrums? Well, here you go.

Readers of this blog may remember that at the end of 2011, I wrote myself seven (I like sevens) writing resolutions that I kept secret and said I would reveal at the end of 2012. And I photographed them, promising I’d open them up in a year and tell you if I met them?

1 closed res2 closed res3 closed res4 closed res5 closed res6 closed res7 closed res

If you were curious what writing resolutions I had for this past year, here they are… and their outcomes:

Resolution #1: A vow to not distract myself by the internet in the mornings…

2012 resolution 1

Did I meet resolution #1? Let’s be honest here. Let’s lay it bare. I did not follow this at all. Ever. I checked my email first thing in the morning—and my Twitter, and my Facebook—and though I occasionally walked out of my way to the writing café that doesn’t have wifi on purpose, I didn’t do that as often as I should have. I failed at this. I failed. And I have to say: I think most of my problems this year stem from not meeting this personal goal. If I want 2013 to be a better year, I think I should revisit this.

Resolution #2: Finish a draft of a new novel by, like, MONDAY????

2012 resolution 2

Resolution #2—are you kidding?? I am really upset and angry at myself for not meeting this. Imagine if I’d completed the draft of a new novel by the end of this year, which would technically be Monday! Maybe I’d have a new book deal by now, a new contract and chance to keep up this career, a new book coming out soon enough… I mean, yeah, it would have been all kinds of amazing if I’d been able to meet this. I didn’t. I didn’t at all. But, by the end of the year, I will have a new draft of some new proposal pages and synopsis ready for my agent to see… so that’s… well, it’s something. I need to be content with that something or else I’ll be too down on myself to even finish this post.

Resolution #3: Write short stories again!

2012 resolution 3

Resolution #3—how’d I do? Well, I kind of made some progress on this, halfway, anyway. Secretly, on the side, I revised and reworked some short stories, and realized how many I think are worthy of keeping and being made new. Short stories are what I started writing—they’re the reason I fell in love with writing fiction. And I may not have met this goal this year, but I am not done with this yet. Not done.

Resolution #4: Try for something big.

2012 resolution 4

Did I accomplish resolution #4? Surprisingly, I think I can say I did. I applied for some things this year. I got rejected. But the point is, I TRIED. And that’s all I can control when it comes to making a resolution: only what I can do, not how the world responds to me. So, yes, I did this, and I’m proud of myself.

(Edited to say: Now that I remember, I got a couple yeses, too!)

Resolution #5: Hahahahahahahah write every day ha.

2012 resolution 5

What, is the absurdity of resolution #5 showing? I didn’t write every day. Some days I had to work. Some days I was too depressed to write. Some days I made excuses. I kind of sucked at this, what more do you want me to say?

Resolution #6: Stop comparing yourself to other writers and being so negative!

2012 resolution 6 final

Is it humanly possible to really meet resolution #6? OK, this may shock you. But guess what? I think I have finally begun to tackle this issue in myself—this flaw of comparing myself to other writers and what they can do, what they’ve accomplished, what book deals and foreign sales and movie options and awards lists they’ve reached—really. I spent most of the year trying to get away from this squishy, icky part of myself, and here I am, sitting at the end of 2012, and I feel… okay. I’ve stopped searching out the negativity and dwelling on bad comparisons. I’m myself. I write what I write. This was the biggest war inside me during 2012, and I’ve come out of it stronger and more sure of myself. Maybe it doesn’t matter that I failed most of my other resolutions, if I made this one.

Resolution #7: Start the book I’m afraid to start.

2012 resolution 7

And the last resolution of them all, lucky #7, did I reach it? Well… no. I didn’t. I know exactly what book I mean when I say the book I’m afraid to write. It’s not a YA novel. And I didn’t allow myself to embrace working on it yet. But you know what? I did embrace working on a novel that does feel BIG in a different way. It’s unapologetic. It’s all me. And I want to write it first. So lucky #7, you’ll have to wait. I’ll write you someday.

How do I not feel like a big, old failure?

Here I am, revealing to you my goals and aspirations a whole year after I set them down on paper and photographed them for future shaming purposes, admitting I failed at most of them, and yet… I don’t feel all bad about this year, either. I am ending on a good note. I am writing something I love. And we writers know how delicious that feels. I am closing out 2012 on that high feeling.

…And maybe I’ll carry over some of these resolutions into 2013.

Tell me: Did you reach your 2012 writing resolutions? 

On Chasing Ambition and Being a Girl and a Woman

I sometimes look around and realize I’m living a strange life—well, “strange” by the standards of what a woman in her thirties (I refuse to say the number out loud or write it down) might be living. I haven’t given my mom grandchildren. Every time I see her and I think of her with her friends who all have grandchildren, I feel a pang of guilt—even though she assures me she wants me just the way I am and that I’ve given her two “grandchildren” so far: Dani Noir and Imaginary Girls, with a third on the way this coming winter.

I don’t feel the need or desire to have children. It’s just not in me to be someone’s mother; there’s no biological clock in there, and I’ve tried to listen for it. No ticking. I say I don’t want children every single time I go to doctor visits, because they keep asking. But I also know they’ll stop asking me soon. My window is soon closing, and I’m fine with that.

I’m not such a successful grown-up either. I haven’t bought a house or an apartment—and I will never be able to do that. In fact, I own nothing of value at all. I’m married, but I don’t fit the standard definition of “wife” —I don’t cook; I barely clean; I don’t even do my own laundry. In fact, sit down because you might find this too romantic—I got married to give my boyfriend health insurance after he finished grad school. I took a personal day from work, we went to City Hall, and the next day I went to work and signed him up for my insurance with HR. We’d never intended to marry before, even though we love each other and have been together since we were eighteen. But I insisted. For health insurance, I told myself. Ironically, I no longer have that job. So it goes.

I don’t have a work career anymore, beyond freelancing. I don’t have many friends—I lost touch with so many of them over the years—and the only ones I do still have are writers too. I don’t like holidays. I don’t understand why people stay close with family just because you share blood. I keep close with certain members of my family, a tiny circle who I love, and I don’t need anyone else. I don’t have a social life. I don’t have hobbies. I don’t have savings. I enjoy spending time alone, with only myself. Very much. I look around lately—with so many people I know having children, and moving out of Manhattan, if they ever lived here to begin with, and doing things with family and going to weddings and going on vacations—and I see how odd I am. I am writing this alone at a café table on a beautiful weekend morning when most people seem to be outdoors, and I’m perfectly content staying right here.

I have and want one thing, and I’ve been single-minded about it since high school: I write. I’ve always wanted to be a writer, to the detriment of everything else.

When the writing is going well, I’m happy, I’m alive, I’m more pleasant to be with—and when the writing isn’t going well, I’m destruction on short legs. I’m a nightmare. I’m all or nothing. I’m that self-centered, temperamental artist no one wants to live with. When I want to go away for a month at a time for an artist colony, I jet off and go. When I want to stay home for days at a time revising and not cleaning or doing dishes or picking up things I drop on the floor, I do it.

I’m everything I always wanted to be—because I only ever wanted this one thing. And I’m also a bit of a monster, because when you have only one thing, you have quite a lot to lose.

I’m thinking of all this now because of this beautiful post I came across last night, “What I Did the Summer After I Graduated” by the Rejectionist. It’s this quote that resonates with me, this one I shared on Tumblr last night:

“When you are a woman or a girl or female no one says to you Look, artists who are great take without asking and take and take and do not apologize because when you are a woman or a girl or female the only thing you are supposed to take is a lot of other people’s shit. No one says to you Be sure you are strong enough to take and not apologize and keep going when the taking leaves you nothing to go back to. Be sure you are strong enough to steal and live alone with what you’ve chosen to make yours.” —The Rejectionist

You see, that post speaks to me. It speaks to me about ambition. About having this kind of larger-than-life ambition as a girl and now a woman. I know so many of us have it, but I also know it’s all I have. It’s all I want. My life is made up of this and nothing else.

Which is dangerous.

That beautiful post makes me think of all I let go and thought I didn’t want and so lost, over the years. About being this strange kind of creature who’s filled with only this WANTING to become something she may never get to be because it’s never good enough, where I am, it’s never the best I can do. What will be left of me if I never reach the heights I see in my dreams? And does it even matter if I know I’ll never stop reaching?

Recently, on Twitter, I asked, cryptically, if it ever ends. If, for authors, you ever stop and think what you’ve done is good enough. Authors said no, so I must not be alone in this.

I know in my heart it won’t ever be enough. I will never have written enough. Having aspiration this enormous means it can never be fed.

I have a memory of being eighteen, the summer before I left for college and met the boy I dragged to City Hall. It was night. We were in the woods, some boys, some girls, and of the friends I was with that night, I was the only one headed off to college in a week or two. Three of them would go on to become heroin addicts and one would be murdered over a drug dispute before she turned thirty. But at that moment, the summer nights smoking innocent bowls and running naked into the reservoir and hanging our arms out the open windows of speeding cars down long, dark roads seemed to be the only thing worth having in the world. A friend was talking of all I’d miss. All we had here. How much he wanted to stay and how he couldn’t fathom how anyone would want to leave. And it was a beautiful town, yes, where people still go on vacations. But it was so not enough for me.

We were on the edge of a cliff, looking off into the dark night and there was no way to know how far we’d fall if we jumped. I remember looking into the darkness of my hometown and feeling it in my bones, this thought: I have to get the fuck out of here. I couldn’t stay. I had so much more to do. I’d barely written anything beyond amateur poems and stories at that point, and I didn’t even know what being a “Writer” even entailed, but I knew I had to be one. I was going to be a writer. Somehow I felt sure I had to give up everything and anything to do that. I looked into the darkness and swore to myself I would.

It’s a promise I kept. I did go off to college. And I never did look back, though I mourned my friend who died, who was so talented, she should have gotten out, and away from drugs, herself. She would have become an artist whose name you would have known.

I’d miss my chances at trying heroin with my friends—I thank the universe for this every day—and I’d move to the city, where I always wanted to live, and I’d stay far away from drugs and I guess I’d become this thing I wanted to become. An artist. A writer. A cold-hearted person who cares for nothing else. Somehow I got it in my head that this is how I had to be and I whittled down my life to only this.

This is a strange life, the kind of life—decades ago—only men were supposed to live.

Ambition. Why did I let go of so much while chasing after it to get here? And if I hadn’t, would I have made it anyway?

Is this where I thought I’d end up when I looked off the cliff into the darkness?

Complicated questions I ask myself. Complicated answers I can’t ever hope to know.

This Writing Thing Is SO HARD

The title of this post? I said those exact words yesterday. I’m a few days from finishing this round of revision and turning it in. I’m a mess. I’m trying so hard. I have no perspective anymore. I’m forcing myself to work at a pace that’s unnatural to me—in my natural state, it would take me five years to write a good novel because I enjoy spending all day on a single paragraph and I like to procrastinate and make excuses and wait for the so-called muse to hit—and working at this speedy pace involves fighting myself and pushing myself and by the end of the day I am flat-out exhausted and aching and can only collapse in bed thinking of what I still have to revise tomorrow.

And yet.

Because last night, out loud, I whined that writing is so hard. And then I heard myself. I heard myself. Hard? This writing thing is SO HARD? Really? It’s “hard” to spend all day writing a story I made up in my head full of things that fascinate and inspire and tickle and terrify me? It’s “hard” to be able to write instead of having to be at my old day job? It’s “hard” to push myself to finish the draft of a book I love so I can show it to one of the most talented editors in my field, so she can then read it and help me make it better? Really, now… That’s “hard”?

That’s a phenomenal moment to be in, is what that is.

So, yeah, I felt like a dope.

And yes, writing can be “hard”—but in the most rewarding way possible, which means it’s really not so hard after all now, is it? Back to revising.

What Scares ME? Time to Tell You

(Design & illustration by Robert Roxby)

The book that terrified me when I was twelve years old isn’t a ghost story. It’s not a horror novel, either (though I did read all of my stepfather’s Stephen King novels—I basically read anything in the house that had words on it, including all my mom’s Atwood, Walker, Piercy, Jong, Zimmer Bradley, and Auel novels as well as cereal boxes and shampoo bottles).

No, the book that scared me back then isn’t fiction at all, and I think that’s why the lasting terror. Because this book was TRUE. A doctor said so. It certainly wasn’t published to haunt an unwitting twelve-year-old girl.

The book had a rust-red hardcover spine. The book jacket was long-lost, so all I remember is catching sight of the naked spine on my parents’ bookshelves in the living room.

In black block letters the spine said:

SYBIL

I was curious. And I was lonely and bored. We’d moved into a new house, in a new state, and I’d just started the seventh grade in a new school. I had an unflattering layered haircut, fingerless lace gloves, a weird name, a shy streak that kept me from speaking up in front of people, and a secret interest in dark and twisted things.

The house we were renting was down a dead-end dirt road, up a steep dirt driveway, and set at the top of a hill, overlooking a great expanse of nothing full of trees. The internet did not yet exist, but even so… We did not have TV reception. We had no visible neighbors. There was nothing but the house itself, wood-colored so it blended in with the trees.

We were renting this house from former revolutionaries (a whole other story I’ll write about one day), and it often unearthed some interesting finds. Pieces of buried political history. A jar of unwanted pennies under the sink. Easter-colored dishes with chips on the sides as if rescued from a food fight. So I don’t know if I thought this book belonged to the mysterious people who owned the house or if it was ours, and had been all along.

All I know is I’d never seen the book before we moved in.

I carried the book to my room and began reading. Sybil wasn’t a novel, I read, it was a psychological case study. A woman—in the book she’s known as Sybil Dorsett, to protect her privacy—has a whole host of people living inside her, many of them still children. They have names and separate personalities. They look different. They are different. She’s one body for sixteen different people.

I didn’t know this could be possible… Multiple Personality Disorder, as it was called then. I didn’t know you could carry this possibility inside you and then, when you got older than twelve… say, when you turned into a teenager (as this illness was often first shown to emerge in teenagers) it could split you apart into different people.

The book had drawings. Drawings Sybil made as her other personalities. Each in their own distinctive style, as if actually drawn by different hands. I remember them: Vicky and the Peggys and more. I remember wondering about the personalities… were they always listening? Where did they hide inside Sybil’s head… and in my head, who was hiding in there? How many of there were me?

Now I see that this book has controversy—maybe the story of all her personalities was made-up… by “Sybil” herself, or even her doctor. But at the time, it was deeply real. And entirely possible. It terrified me to think this could happen to me, or to someone I knew. And it made an awful kind of sense—due to some adults I knew. (I think this is why Nina LaCour’s scary true story that she shared for this blog series unsettled me so much. That, there: my childhood fear.)

Sybil was the first book that ever truly scared me to my core, but there’s another book I read far more recently that got under my skin. And that was its intention.

It’s a book about a house.

I guess you should know that I’m wary of houses, especially old ones with layers of history. Especially ones in the middle of nowhere, surrounded on all sides by trees. I can admit that because I don’t live in one—I live in a blessed apartment without any stairs to run up in terror while a cold finger claws at my back. In the apartment building where I live, at every hour of every day, I can hear other human occupants on the other side of the walls, or above or below me, or out in the courtyard playing beer pong (I hate them! But they don’t scare me), and I feel safe. Living in cramped and crowded Manhattan makes me feel safer than I ever felt living in that house off the dirt road that we moved into when I was twelve.

We’ve since considered that the house could have been haunted, as there were some questionable events involving a Ouija board that I’m not sure how to explain away, and a frightening part of the basement no one would enter, but I believed many things to be haunted back then… I was easily susceptible.

I still am. So of course I’m drawn to haunted-house stories. And here is the mother of them all.

Anyone else read The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson?

The house in question is a haunted mansion where a paranormal investigator goes to live with two guests who’ve agreed to stay there with him to see if they can witness any strange occurrences. One of those guests is Eleanor, who begins to witness some frightening sights inside that house—and I don’t know if we can believe what Eleanor tells us she sees. We’re meant to wonder. To question what’s real and what’s not, all of which plays into our fears. Well, certainly my fears.

I vividly remember reading this book in my living room. I was alone. The lights were all out except for a single lamp above my head. I came to a scene, a spine-tingling section involving a series of phantom knocks coming from out in the hallways, pounding pounding on a bedroom door, and when the lights in my living room dimmed for a moment as they sometimes do (nothing supernatural; our building often has brownouts), I shrieked loudly, and forgot that I was only reading a book. That it wasn’t real.

What gave me such chills is the unseen. When, in some stories and movies, the big scary monster is revealed in all its glory, it loses its power for me. Not so with The Haunting of Hill House. The not-knowing, the never-being-sure, the imagination let loose and running down the hallway pounding menacingly on doors… that, for me, is true fear.

Sometime later I was brought back to that heart-pounding moment in the book again.

I’d found myself in a single-room cabin in the woods (this during my latest visit to the MacDowell Colony, far away from home in rural New Hampshire where the dark nights were so full of… nothing else to call it but complete darkness… that after dinner when I went back to my studio alone I’d chatter to myself inanely as I walked the paths at night with my skittering flashlight—“just make it to the door you can do it no one’s out there just make it to the door look there’s the door you’re fine you’re fine you’re fine get your key out there’s your key you’re almost there” etc.) and I was reminded again of this book.

I was writing at my desk, at night, with my back to the door that led to the screened-in porch. I never went out out there because it was winter, and snow had swept in through the screens, piling up and making it impossible to use as a second entrance.

So there I was, writing, alone, in the quiet, at night. Then in the deep silence surrounding my tiny little house in the woods, I heard three sharp knocks.

From the door behind me, the one connected to the screened-in porch.

I remember turning very slowly to face the door. I’d heard nothing, I told myself. I’d made it up.

Uh, no. Because it knocked again.

Immediately where did my mind go? To The Haunting of Hill House, of course. Something had knocked on the door in that book… and something was knocking on the door in my studio in the woods right then.

Did I open the door?

Did I open the door to discover it was only the wind coming through the screened-in porch, and it had thrown a stick from the woodpile against the door, so it sounded like something knocking?

I did.

But before I opened that door, I don’t even want to admit here all of what I was thinking.

You see, my imagination gets away from me. Ask me (or my poor other half) sometime about the ceiling nightmares that plagued me for years when we had the loft bed.

There is that moment—spine-tingling, fear rising—when I’m convinced beyond rights or reason that it is REAL.

The strangers in my head…

The frantic knocks on the back door…

The thing crawling on the ceiling…

Books bring it all to life. And who am I to explain it away and open the door?


I want to thank everyone for being involved in this What Scares You? blog series—the authors who wrote guest blogs for me, the authors who donated their own books to give away, Penguin Teen for generously donating so many books for the giveaway, Robert Roxby for the amazing design and illustrations, and YOU, for reading.

On Halloween, there will be two exciting final things to end the series:

 1) A guest post by the scarily brilliant Libba Bray—on horror! 

and

2) A big book giveaway—I’m giving away more than 20 books!

If you want to get a jump on the Halloween giveaway, this is just a reminder that every guest blog you comment on will give you an extra entry. I’ll randomly choose the winners of the prize packs, so you could win a stash of creepy books if you never comment or you could win a stash of creepy books if you comment thirty times, who knows, it’s random and I might ask a ghost to pick the winners.

(Please note: The giveaway will be US-only due to shipping costs. Sorry.)

You can read all the “What Scares You?” guest blogs with this tag.

The Unmuddying of the Idea

I know I only just finished the first draft of a novel, but while I take a break from working on that one, while I wait for revision, it’s the perfect time to play around on Tumblrkidding—it’s actually the perfect time to try to articulate ideas for another book.

It’s the articulation part of this process that always gets me.

When I first come to a story idea, one I think I want to try writing, I feel the idea, the vibration of it. I sense it in me, the tone and shades of it. I know it well enough to recognize its voice on the street. Yet if you asked me to describe it to you, like in plot order, I’d freeze up and flail my hands and stutter and if you have a heart you’d feel bad for me and we’d start talking about the weather instead.

Communicating the idea to someone else is always a great challenge.

So, before I can talk about it, I have to write it down. It always comes out wrong at first, but I have selective amnesia and seem to forget that each time. I want the idea to be perfect at its first stab on the page. It never is. I write the idea. Then I rewrite it and rewrite it and someday, we hope, the idea will smooth itself out into a pleasing shape. The mud will be washed away and it’ll be clear.

That’s what I’m working on this week.

Two different ideas.

This morning I met two writers in a café that had password-protected wifi (I made sure not to ask for the password) and bad cell phone service, so my phone had no bars. The other writers started writing and then there I was, me and my ideas. Somehow I wrote a whole new draft of the YA idea while I was sitting there. It needs more work, but it’s closer now.

Soon will come the scary part when I show the ideas to someone else* and see what he thinks.

_______

* My process for writing a book starts with showing my novel ideas to my agent before starting to write any words of the story. Basically a pitch for what I want the book to be, if I wrote it. I also show the ideas to my other half. They both tend to agree or say similar things without realizing—it’s uncanny—so in my experience if I have them both on board, then I know the idea has legs. This can be a dramatic process if I’m very attached to the idea, as I am now, but it saves the pain and suffering I might have at starting to write an inarticulate idea and then having to trash many pages.

There is such a thing, though, as overthinking an idea and ruining it before you even get started writing. So sometimes I feel like I’m handling explosives. I have to delicately set the words down and then take a step back. Will it blow to smithereens or will it hold still for me to write it?

_______

In the meantime, the idea and I continue to grow very, very attached. It’s whispering in my ear now, wanting me to write its first paragraph…

I’m holding back, for now.

How do you articulate your ideas?

Tomorrow Is a New Day

Here’s a little piece of writing advice I give myself. I give it a lot, but it’s always worth hearing:

Tomorrow is a new day.

Today can be a big nothing. Today can equal 0 in word count, or deep into the negatives below 0 if I get carried away cutting. I can feel like the book is going nowhere today. I can feel like a crap writer today. I can doubt every single thing there is to doubt today.

And yet… the thing about a bad writing day is that it is only one day.

Tomorrow is a whole new start if I want it to be. Tomorrow could become a big sizzling something. It could equal 2,100 in word count—or more, possibly, much more. The book could go surprising, exciting places tomorrow. I could be worth something tomorrow. Tomorrow could change the whole game.

So I’m giving myself this advice before I go to sleep tonight:

Tomorrow is a new day.