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A Sleever

June 21st, 2015 by admin

My mother was a sleever.


This, to me, was not poetic.  It was factory talk: Sleevers were a  part of the production line in the dress factories where she worked. Her job was to sew the sleeves onto the dresses after the bodice was formed and before the collars were put in place. Since, in factories, you take on the name of your place in a manufacturing process, from 6:30 am to 3:00 pm each day my mother took on the identity of sleever.  But, other times, like on financial aid forms and documents that asked her profession, she got to write seamstress.  That term was the one I preferred for her.  It was ladylike and professional. She was a craftswoman, a seamstress.


When I was very young, before I knew the name Emily Dickinson, my mother used to look at me and say, “I’m nobody.  Are you nobody, too?  Then there’s a pair of us.  Don’t tell.  They’d banish us, you know.” Aside from nursery rhymes and prayers, this was the first poem I remember.  I found it easy enough to accept being nobodies—as long as I could be one with my mom–but it frightened me—the idea of my mother and me being banished, and most of all, having to keep our identities a secret.


She must have learned the poem in school.  Because I know something about her, I can imagine how that poem seized her in all possible ways, how it would have spoken directly to her and about her, and kept speaking to her after high school graduation and her years working in factories.  I’d like to think that if my mother had lived in another time, in a less geographically isolated place, among other circumstances, that she would have gravitated toward (and found) poetry that would have spoken to her and about her in many ways.  But she spent her whole life in a town, on a hilltop in the Appalachians, that had no public library—just four bars, a coal mine, and a dress factory.  How could someone like that ever be a part of the world of poetry?


I remember another poem—another first one—and it just happens to also involve my mother. When I was in elementary school, besides the Tuesdays the bookmobile would come to school, I loved the monthly Scholastic flyers more than anything.  My mother liked them, too, and she and I would carefully pore over each selection.  Though we didn’t have a lot of spare money, as far as my mother was concerned, the sky was the limit — I could have all the Scholastic books I wanted.  This was the one indulgence we shared and savored together—her generosity, our collected hopefulness concerning books.  My second “first” poem came from there.


“Here’s one,” she said. She was at the kitchen table, just after dinner, her glasses poised on the tip of her nose.  “Carl Sandburg.”


I was in fourth grade and I hadn’t ever heard of him. “How do you know it’s good?” I asked.


“I’m just guessing.”  She read, “The fog comes on little cat’s feet. . . .”


I checked the box.  I was already in love.


Years later, I was graduating from college. I’d managed to get a fellowship to go to graduate school. Now that was some kind of crazy luck: Someone was paying for me to go to school because they liked my poetry.  Can you imagine what that was like for me and my mother?  She was still working in the factory at the time, but by then, the production of the higher-end dresses she used to make was shipped off shore, and now she was sewing lower-end pajamas.  After all those years, she was still a sleever.  She was proud to tell her friends I was off to Amherst—home of the poet Emily Dickinson—to go to graduate school.


“What’s she going for?” her friends would ask.  The first couple of times she said, “Poetry,” which was true and accurate, which made her proud, which was because of her–after all, she’d planted my love of words. But it got too hard explaining what I would ever do with an advanced degree in poetry.  Seriously–everybody knows that’s no kind of full-time work.  So, after a while, at least with certain people, she’d say, “Journalism.”

I laughed she told me about my secret identity as a journalist. It was still bragging. It was certainly better than factory work, and, anyway, it involved words—crafting, sewing together, words. It didn’t matter to me what she called it. My mother knew what poetry meant.  And I knew it wasn’t even close to her true identity to call her a sleever.  She was so many other things.  She was my muse.


The Real Skinny on an Author’s Book Promotion

January 9th, 2014 by admin

If you’re here, you are looking for some (more?) advice on what you need to do to promote your soon-to-be-released book.

Eventually, I’m going to give you some simple advice.  So if you’re in a hurry and trying to figure out what you need to do to make sure you do all you can to be a successful writer, scroll down to the bold stuff.  But I’d rather you read through the whole thing (I’m a writer!  Of course I’d love you to read everything I write!)

My story about pre-publication started on the internet.

The internet was my friend after I wrote my first book.  The internet taught me how to write a query (thank you Absolute Write), how to find an agent (thank you AgentTracker), how to deal with rejection (thank you Nathan Bransford), and how to understand the publishing process.  Later, the internet told me that even though they pay an author some kind of advance for a book, publishers were no longer promoting books.  I would have to promote my book or it would wither before the ink on the pages was even dry.

The internet told me how to get started.  The first thing I did was join a collaborative writers’ group.  There, my information source shifted from what I could find on the internet, to what information a group of about 20 middle-grade and young-adult debut writers could share with me about what they knew (they knew a lot).

From books like An Author’s Guide to Children’s Book Promotion (yes, there is a book!) and my collaborative writermates, I learned about everything I might draw into my arsenal to promote my forthcoming Young Adult Contemporary Realistic novel   I needed an INTERNET PRESENCE!!! I created my author’s website, twitter and facebook pages,  wrote press releases.  I went to conferences–national and regional. I became a member of several societies.  I networked. I blogged, blogged, and blogged some more. .  In addition to the in-the-box promotional strategies I also joined a book launch “lab” at a writers’ collective and took classes in unconventional methods.  I wrote to my grad school, my undergraduate college. I parlayed almost every method I could imagine–from adopting a cause and raising money for it, through giving meta-talks–not directly about my book, but about my studies in how to market books.

I wouldn’t exactly call myself an expert, but through intensive immersion in the study of what-authors-do-when-they-do-what-they’re-expected-to (and more) to promote their books, I’d call myself thoroughly informed. I spent about a year prior to and 10 months after the publication of my first novel thoroughly wrapped up in self-promotion, swag, panels, and signings.

My book had a strong showing. I got mostly good or even great reviews. I even had a starred review from Booklist, a nomination for an Edgar award for Best Young Adult Mystery novel 2013; in fact I was on several best-of lists, and was an Indie New Voices selection.  So why, only ten months after publication and all my efforts, did my book get put out to pasture without so much as a chance at a paperback version?

That may or may not be a complicated answer.  My editor tells me the reason she was given was that the book didn’t sell well.  My agent said no books sell–they still go to paper.  I think the answer comes down to one premise:  If your publisher doesn’t back you, your book will not thrive.  Of course there are exceptions–self-pubbed books that get a following and turn into an underground phenomenon.  But, for the most part, very few books will get support–and the fact is that this number is dropping every day.

So what do you do?  Force yourself until you end up in the emergency room getting a CT screen because you end up with vertigo from the cold you pretended you didn’t have the entire month after your launch (this actually happened to me)?  Go to every book festival, library and school visit (me–all of them–for free!), raise you hand for every networking event you can possibly attend–even if you have to go to two in the same day (yep, me again).  Blog every time somebody asks (I never said no)? Donate copies of your book to every internet giveaway you can find (even when no one enters the contest and the folks running it get the book?  Me–three times!)

From the vantage point I’ve earned through the last 3 years of plugging my book (I still have engagements I committed to a year ago, and by the time I get to them, the  book I’m plugging may officially be out of print), I’ll indulge myself to give a bit of advice.  You’re probably reading because you are about to wrap yourself up in your own whirlwind of self-promo–so this is what you’re here for, right?  The best advice I got was from Lynn Griffiths and Katrin Schulmann who led my Launch Lab at Grub Street in Boston.  They said, “Do what gives you energy back.”  For me, that’s writer’s workshops at libraries, talking about someone else’s writing, not my own.  And for me it’s being the moderator of someone else’s book panel, not so much being a member.  But if I look back on the time and money (oh, I forgot to mention all this can cost thousands of dollars–for me, about 1/2 my advance).  It’s advice that seems self-evident, sure, but it really requires some self-reflection.  The most important advice I’m going to give you is:  don’t lose track of yourself as someone who writes.  Your job is writing, not self-promoting.  During my time at Launch Lab, one writer named Pagan Kennedy told our group of 16 writers about to launch books a really good way to think about the launch of a book.  She said she budgets 4 months of promotion time, post-publication.  She said, simply, “I’m a working writer.”  She has that much time to be a promoter, and the rest of the time is for going back to work, so she’ll have something to promote down the line. 

So this is my advice: Assume your publisher will or will not be your partner and be okay with that, either way.  Select some things you want to do to make your book visible (tweeting, visiting libraries, blogging, and all the rest) and then give it a growing season–four months–to do those things.  And then move on and write something else.   You are a writer! Go on and get back to your writing.

A True Survivor

January 8th, 2014 by admin

A couple of years ago, I had a remarkable student named Erin Chack who wrote about skateboarding, among other things, for my class at BU.  During the semester, she was diagnosed with lymphoma, and she left school for treatment, but returned, funny and feisty as ever.  When I think about how graciously she took on the battle (her mother was diagnosed with cancer around the same time), I am still amazed.  She’s a Buzzfeed staffer, now and she’s written about her first days back on campus after treatment.  It’s funny, hopeful, and beautiful.

Here’s a taste:

I found myself walking past a building I had almost had the pleasure of forgetting: Student Health Services. There, only nine months prior, I had heard the words “Hodgkin’s lymphoma” for the first time from a ginger doctor wearing a bow tie. I remembered how I laughed when he said it. I figured as a glorified campus condom dispenser, he was tired of wasting his medical degree on diagnosing garden-variety venereal diseases and threw in the cancer diagnosis at the first sign of a measly neck lump as a way to spice things up. It took about a month of X-rays, blood tests, PET scans, and finally biopsies to confirm his prediction. I had so much time to think about it that when my parents finally told me I did, in fact, have cancer, I didn’t get upset. I just laid facedown between them on their bed and asked into a pillow whether they were OK.

The Polar Vortex and the Missing Girl

January 7th, 2014 by admin

January 7. Cold air that normally sticks around the North Pole has slipped its moorings, heading south, today in a polar vortex.  Ice quakes are shaking the earth in the midwest. Milder here, but with the wind, 13 degrees still feels like negative one.  All extreme weather–wind driving rain at an angle nearly parallel to the ground, thick fog that off-gassed from snow banks, or even a night blacker than any due to low clouds–makes me think about her.  So, for sure I would connect the  polar vortex to the missing girl, the one who cut through the playing fields of her high school on the way to a path through the woods still covered in mostly green leaves, 89 days ago.  That was when she disappeared.

She was wearing yoga pants and a baggy sweater in the school security photo that offers the last picture of her.  So, to me, how could she not be under-dressed during a polar vortex–at least in my imagining? Her cell phone was in one hand and the other hand was covered down to the fingertips by her sleeve.  I do that sometimes, too, pull my cuff over my thumb and hold it there, like a street urchin, when I’m feeling nervous.  (Was she nervous as she headed toward the door?)    She was wearing boots that were black or brown, depending on which FBI Missing Person poster you read, and carrying a large, slouchy bag. In the security photo, the shoulder bag seems to be made of cloth, large enough to haul the mail around the neighborhood.  She was about to step away from the first four weeks of her freshman year of high school and into something else.

The reason I know about this girl (who disappeared, by the way, three days before her fifteenth birthday) was that the week before another girl disappeared, a little closer to my home.  I discovered the news of the other girl on Twitter, as I also discovered just twenty hours later, already gone, that they found her deep in the woods near a statue she liked as kid–a secret spot in the magical forest of her childhood, maybe,  to her.  She left a goodbye note to someone, left her keys in her car.  So, when an almost identical child, just a couple years younger, disappeared a short while later, it seemed like an epidemic:  missing girls in leggings, long dark hair and darker eyes who have an obligatory but slight smile in one or two selfies they leave behind on Facebook.  Two girls with sad, wan smiles.  I’m not saying that’s a reason to become obsessed with missing teenagers, I’m just setting up my way of thinking about the still-missing girl in bad weather, during scary dark nights, almost all the time when I am near the woods.  My first thought was that girls sometimes walk into the forest to kill themselves–why is that?    Whatever draws them there?

But suicidal thoughts don’t seem to be the case with the girl who’s been gone for 89 days as of today.  From everything I’ve meticulously gathered in the past 89 days, on crime websites and chat rooms and all the news reports, is that she was probably going to meet someone–walking into the woods alone like that–she left her friends behind on the bus and even texted one of them a <3.   A last heart–signifying everything or nothing?–just before she strolled off the path toward something else.  These were two different girls, walking into trees that were starting to turn golden, leaving little notes behind like breadcrumbs, for different reasons–or so it seems.

I don’t think I’ve missed a single thing–not one of the series of daily press conferences with the attorney general and the FBI agents flanking the tearful mother in the first three weeks as October wound down, not the handwritten letters the mother posts on facebook talking directly to the girl or the pictures of the girl’s pugs wearing reindeer antlers as Christmas approached, not puzzling the news that the mother had received a letter from the girl a month after she disappeared.  I know only what police have released about this missing girl–maybe more than the average person, but still not much.   With just that to go on, you could say there are two choices, that either this girl is warm and safe from the polar vortex or that it no longer matters what the weather outside is.  Or you could think what I am, now, as I watch the naked branches outside my window rock back and forth and back and forth: you could think about how there  is a world of shadows in between these black and white choices–life and death.  You could wonder about the exact moment–that split second when “walking away” becomes “missing endangered.”  You could think whatever led up to that moment started a long time before 89 days ago, and the arctic pole moved south. Girls don’t go missing for nothing.

Life redux

January 2nd, 2014 by admin

In a twist on Emily Dickinson’s “tell the truth, but tell it slant,” NPR has this recommendation for editing your life story so it’s happy (if it isn’t happy already, I guess is implied).

Resolving Door

January 1st, 2014 by admin

Yes, that’s right, word play on “revolving door.”  The story of my writing life:  me stuck in a revolving door going around in circles. But hey, it’s January 1,2014 and this new year,  I’m going to make myself accountable for my writing life, or at least I’m going to walk into the resolving door and hopefully out into the lobby of a new project.   Day one:  blog for the first time in. . . ages.

What’s been happening?  I was kind of kicked to the curb when I found out Emily’s Dress isn’t going into paperback.  Okay, I cried.  It was surprising.  It was discouraging.

So what I have been doing for five months? Following crime blogs compulsively.  I tell people “I’m working on a missing person’s case” and yeah, they think I’m nuts.  Truth is it’s been a way to avoid the scary, scary stuff of writing again, getting rejected again.  I’ve been allowing myself this break–allowing myself to wander away from writing–not out of anger or self-pity so much as self-preservation.  Can you live without it, kiddo?  That’s what I’ve allowed myself to think about.  Now that I know it’s okay to live without it, I’m going to come back to the writing life.  I have a different way of thinking about publishing.  My debut book came out last year, and it was an intense year of learning the business, promoting myself, buying all the advice about what you have to do to get your book “out there.”  I feel like I understand how possible (or not) it is for one person to get her book out there.  I’ll tell you a little more of that in some blogs later.

I’m back. I made the decision to come back–not a resolution.

National Poetry Month 2013

April 26th, 2013 by admin

So, I’ve been blogging elsewhere.

Here a bit about my “first poems,” and here about what I learned about verse novels and novels in poems at this year’s Associated Writing Program Conference from David Levithan, Holly Thompson, Ellen Hopkins, and Mariko Nagai.

Amherst Reading

November 18th, 2012 by admin

Yesterday, I had the chance to bring Emily’s Dress home.  Amherst Books and the Emily Dickinson Museum teamed up and invited me to read in Amherst.  I can’t quite find the words to describe the feeling of reading a scene that takes place on the street right outside the door from where I was standing.  It was one of those moments on the time-space-imagination-reality continuum that makes you keep saying, “Is this really happening or am I imaging this, too?”

My friends David, Deborah, and Julia came, and five beautiful women from Smith College sat right in the front row.  After the reading the staff at the Dickinson house–Jane Wald, Cindy Dickinson, and Valerie Gramling presented me with a swatch of fabric they had woven in England that’s the exact replica of the fabric in Emily Dickinson’s white dress.  Everyone should feel some of the wonderful I did yesterday.

Why YA?

October 29th, 2012 by admin



Amy Pattee, moderator, me, and Jo Knowles. Barry Lyga was also on the panel, “Overcoming Adversity in YA fiction.”

I’m going to post the little speech I got to give iat the Boston Books Festival–on the topic–why write YA?  why read YA?


I have a friend who likes to give me a hard time about YA.

Last Spring, my friend sent an opinion piece from the NYTimes, The piece was by Joel Stein and it was titled, “Adults should read adult books”—and this is a little bit of what he said:


The only thing more embarrassing than catching a guy on the plane looking at pornography on his computer is seeing a guy on the plane reading “The Hunger Games.” Or a Twilight book. Or Harry Potter. The only time I’m O.K. with an adult holding a children’s book is if he’s moving his mouth as he reads.”


Joel, Joel, Joel.


When people ask about my book and I tell them it’s YA, sometimes they say—in the more or less dismissive way some people think about YA—“Like vampires?”


No.  Not that I think there’s anything wrong with vampires. But I try to explain about contemporary realistic YA novels. That they exist.  My book does have a murder, a suicide, and grand theft of an iconic national treasure.  BUT it’s really a quiet story—Okay, it’s complicated, so often I wind up explaining more succinctly: it’s really a story about love.


I know what’s coming next.  The eye roll.  The knowing nod.


Oh, proms and shopping then?”


I want to clarify, I really do. It’s important to me as a reader and writer of YA fiction to defend the books as well as the characters in the books, all the other writers of YA fiction, and of course, every teen in the world.  Many of the people who left comments on the NY TIMES blog felt the same way. Some of them wanted to do violence.  We all wanted to say is YA fiction is not trivial.


An adult YA fan talking about why she reads YA

YA fiction can be as transformative and artful and thoughtful as any great adult fiction.  I keep thinking of ways to explain all this to Joel Stein. But, I also have to admit the adversity in these stories is different from that in adult books.  It’s true.


When I think about what it means to be a teen—to be between things, on the verge of adulthood—with some of the responsibilities, but none of the benefits—being on the verge—when I think of what teens have to overcome in fiction as well as in their real lives—defeating personal demons, understanding who they are, imagining who they could be—all the while being vulnerable to things adults are not–—the first thing I think of is WHAT GREAT MATERIAL FOR STORIES!  What I want to ask is why would you want to cut yourself—or anybody–off from those stories, Joel Stein?


Here is a world where the characters, like many of their readers, feel keenly how essential love is in their lives—arguably, you young people in the audience understand this better than adults—That love is as important as air or food.   I’m going to say that again, that I believe teens, understand a basic truth about love—that it’s as important as air or food—better than adults do.


Their problems—about what they have to do to feel worthy of love, what kinds of bargains they strike to keep the love of others, what they’ll do to help the people they love, these are distinct and central to the genre.


There are other distinct conflicts for teens in fiction—and in real life.

YA characters balance their own quest for love with their need for the adults in their lives.


Because of this, often they are asked to live by codes they may not have yet chosen for themselves.


Because of this, often they struggle to understand how Love—the best and most necessary thing in the world—could also be a burden.


Because of this, they often have to keep deep, heavy secrets.


Since they are still close enough to childhood, they can still love unconditionally—and they do.  They have best friends who share with them this unconditional love.  You don’t often find this element in adult stories.


I’m a teacher and I work with young adults every day, and I can say this with some certainty:  They love and hurt and heal. . . bigger. There’s nothing trivial about that.



The next time somebody asks me why I write YA, or for that matter why I, an adult, read YA, I’m not going to tell them all this. Instead what I’m going to say is the best stories don’t omit any readers.  A whole genre doesn’t, that’s for sure–The best stories speak to everybody.


So. Here’s a bit of dialogue I found—It’s one character speaking to another.  This could come from any story——any story.


“If ever there is tomorrow when we’re not together… there is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we’re apart… I’ll always be with you.”


This could be from YA—perhaps a young person in love with someone for the first time, or a best friend talking to another best friend.  Or it could be from “adult fiction”–a mother talking to her child, or two very old folks at the end of life.  It could be in any kind of story—adult or YA, but it’s not from either of those.  It’s Christopher Robin talking to Pooh.  Just a little story about a boy and his toy bear.


On the Panel: Amy Pattee, moderator, Jo Knowles, and Barry Lyga.

Boston Book Festival 2012 in pictures

October 29th, 2012 by admin

I won’t forget my amazing experience being on a YA panel at the Boston Book Festival, Oct. 27, 2012. I’ll tell you the story in pictures.

“Overcoming Adversity in YA” panel
Amy Pattee, moderator, me, Jo Knowles, and Barry Lyga





This was the beautiful room at the Boston Public Li

Meeting some new friends from New Hampshire and Simmons College

Two readers I was happy to meet. They were also at the Boston Teen Writers Book Festival the next day–true book lovers.