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I can’t believe how fast this year is going. We are already a week away from midterms. The Barrett-Jackson car show, the Phoenix Open, and the Arabian Horse Show have come and gone. It’s getting ready to be spring, and we’ve only just had our first rain of the year. Probably one of the more perfect times in our corner of the desert, and what people fall in love with when they come for a visit. Especially with the kind of winter everyone has been suffering through this year! Polar vortex indeed.
It makes me glad to be here, but at the same time the snowbirds glory in our 80° February, what they don’t realize is that even for us, it’s unseasonably warm – and dry. It harkens to a tough year ahead for fire season, drought, habitat loss, and stress on wildlife. Not to mention a scorching May – September. I’m trying not to think of that now, and just revel in the glory of living someplace snow-and-windchill free.
I feel a blog re-vamp coming on (again), so look for some changes coming up. While I have loved using WordPress.org, and having the customization freedom it offers, I am frustrated by the fact that when I read through some of my posts, half the time the pictures don’t show up (WTF?). And the whole hosting situation is a pain in the rear. So I’m looking to move the whole operation over to another web hosting site, hopefully with lots of improvements.
I’m taking Austin Kleon‘s advice from STEAL LIKE AN ARTIST, and stealing ideas for how to make this site better. Austin sends out occasional newsletters with a quick update on his projects, along with links to interesting things he’s found on the internet recently. Alex Yeske from Dreams + Jeans blogs beautiful pictures and product recommendations. I really like how both of these bloggers give a succinct post, paired with images, and suggestions from around the web, and hope to implement their best practices here.
I’d also like to make to make this site better for YOU, my readers. Any comments? Suggestions on improvements? I’d love to hear them in the comments section below.
A lot has been going on. I have been taking 17 credit hours this semester, and I can’t remember the last time I’ve worked so hard and been so happy in that work. I’m telling you right now: If you’ve been in a slump, or maybe want to advance in your career but lack of a degree is holding you back; GO TO SCHOOL, even if it’s just one class at a time.
There’s nothing that will revive you more than feeding your brain. It’s the perfect time in the economy, too. Things are starting to bounce back, but it’s slow going and business is still slow enough that if you wanted to, you could squeeze in a morning or evening class. Some of them are scheduled to only meet once a week, if that’s all you can commit. There are loads of scholarships available, and enrollment is down, so they WANT you to go to school.
But assuming you can afford one class per semester – maybe two – what would you take? What has always piqued your interest? Ancient Egypt? Art History 101- Prehistoric to the Gothic, or World History to 1500.
What have you always wondered more about? How to really use Excel, so you can go up a paygrade at work? CIS 105 or Excel Level I.
Or, have you always wondered why rocks look like this? Take Geology 101! I liked it so much I took 102 as well.
Why don’t you do something for you? You’ve always wanted to try painting. Remember how much you loved watching Bob Ross? I recommend taking Color Theory first. It’s been a challenge, but a good one!
Think about it.
Besides school, we’ve had a few birthdays
and lost our two best friends :(
Butter (aka Best Dog in the World) was 13, and Pepper (2nd Best Dog in the World) was 12. They passed away within a month of each other.
Our new girl, Juniper, was a birthday surprise, and missed meeting Pepper by two days, but kept Butter company for the last month. She’s adorable, and smart, and keeps us all on our toes.
The horses have gotten hairy. They got a post-Halloween treat.
Keira is still for sale. It’s strange, I think she must be waiting for the perfect home. I’ve had several people interested in her, and a few offers, but they all fell through for various reasons. All she needs is time and attention. She’s super smart and sweet, and responds well to training (see video on her page). I’m so surprised she hasn’t sold yet, because she’s pretty close to perfect. But that’s just my opinion ;)
I gave my first class lecture
and we’ve had some rain.
Coming up, I’ve got a post on a popular author, a round-up of my projects for the semester, an out-of-town writing conference (so exciting!), and after Christmas, I get to go visit my family. Please continue to keep my sister-in-law and our parents in your thoughts. This is our first holiday without John, and he is greatly missed.
Here and now, it’s holiday time in the desert, cool and crisp in the morning, sunny in the afternoon.
I’m thankful for it all – my family, our health & home, the opportunities we have.
And to you, for taking the time to visit.
If you’d like to do more online browsing, please stop by my friends’ sites:
In celebration of Tom’s latest book, and because I LOVE MY READERS :DI am giving away a signed copy of manicpixiedreamgirl!Read on, and enter for your chance!!
I said it when I read Party, Tom Leveen’s debut novel, and I’ll say it again: I will be very very shocked if we don’t see a TV or movie adaptation of his work sometime in the near future. While Party could easily be adapted into an MTV series (each of eleven chapters is told from a different character’s point-of-view, all on the same night – at a high school party), and Zero has an indie-film feel, manicpixiedreamgirl is like today’s version of a John Hughes film.
Yes. I just compared up-and-coming YA author Tom Leveen to the Martin Scorsese of 80’s teen angst.
And it’s apropos, considering, in Tom’s own description of himself freshman year, he had “that whole John Bender thing going,” or at least that’s the look he was going for at the time. But as all of us former freshmen know, the look you want to have is much further from the persona you actually project. We want to be badass, confident and sexy; when in actuality we are awkward, nerdy, and to most of the world, still “kids.”
In manicpixiedreamgirl‘s Tyler—loosely biographical—Tom captures these feelings to a T. Internally, the rush of what you wish was your reality, all the hopes, dreams, and feelings flowing like a fast-moving river; the image of yourself looking fabulous, walking up to your crush and reciting some impressive commentary on Whatever Is Relevant At The Time. But externally, you can barely look them in the eye, and what you really say—the still-puddle of one-syllable responses: “yup,” “nope,” “uh…” John Bender reduced to Brian Johnson.
I first introduced you to Tom in this guest post for Will Write for Coffee. When I met him, Tom had just released his first book, Party, and gave a presentation at our regional SCBWI conference. I had loaned out my copy of Party to a friend, and had stupidly forgotten my wallet in my other purse and wasn’t able to buy a copy at the conference. Being a geek, I like to have signed copies from authors I’ve met. I asked Tom if I could order a signed copy online. He did the absolute coolest thing right then and there—checked to make sure no one was looking, held his finger in a “shh,” and slipped me a copy from his messenger bag, which I then sheepishly brought to the autograph table about 10 minutes later. He’s been a rock star in my mind since.
Even better, after I’d asked him to do this interview, he was scheduled to appear at out local Indie, Changing Hands Bookstore, for the release of manicpixiedreamgirl. I dragged my 15-year-old son and his friend along, and listened to them complain all the way about how boring it would be. I had to bribe them with Jamba Juice just to go with me. (Really, five bucks for a fruit shake?) I forced my son to actually sit down with me during the presentation, rather than let him wander around the store wreaking havoc. What a heinous mother I am.
About two seconds into Tom’s presentation, my son and his friend were laughing hysterically, and I was laughing so hard I was crying. He is so animated and enthusiastic about what he does, and grateful for his ability to do it, it’s infectious. And by the time he’s done relating Tyler’s story to his own evolution, you are pretty much just as in love with his wife Joy as he is. Seriously, if your school or organization is thinking of an author visit – don’t even look anywhere else – Tom will entertain and motivate like none other. And if Tom isn’t enough, his son Toby will definitely do the trick.
It’s an honor and a privilege to introduce you.
Meet the Writer: Tom Leveen
How old were you when you started writing?
I wrote my first story in second grade, so, about seven years old I think. My teacher made me rewrite it and read it aloud to the first graders. At first I thought I was being punished for something, but once I got up in front of the class, I knew I wanted to do this for the rest of my life: tell stories and be in front of an audience. So that’s worked out well.
Where do you write?
I write in an indie coffee shop not far from my house, and also in my home office.
When do you write?
New stuff—brand new, no revision-type stuff—I generally do in the mornings. I used to stay up all night and write, and I miss doing that, but having a toddler has that effect. I use afternoons and evenings to do editing or revision, as well as other business stuff. Like answering interview questions!
What helps you write—music, pictures, maps, journals, etc.—what gets you into that mindset?
I recommend this to all writers. If you can get into a pattern, your brain starts to make associations. Like at my coffee shop, there’s a certain table and certain chair I always use, and within a few minutes of being there and getting set up, I can feel my brain (usually) start to click over to the job at hand, which is continuing that day’s story.
Beyond that, internet research helps me a lot. The more I dig into a topic and click around on websites, the more ideas I get. I do usually make playlists for my stories, too, but I don’t listen to music while I write anymore. Sometimes when I’m making copyedits, but that’s it.
What are some things that stand in your way? logistically as well as creatively?
No, really, the internet is without doubt the writer’s best friend, apart from time. But it’s also a curse, because man, you start off with just needing to know some quick obscure fact, like the capital of Guam, and then an hour’s gone by and you haven’t written a word. And by “you” I mean “me,” of course.
Creatively what makes me stumble is doubt coupled with certainty. For whatever reason, the stuff that I feel most excited about turns out to be my worst writing, and the stuff I’m sure sucks is inevitably what my agent picks up on and wants to read more of. So it gets very confusing in my head sometimes.
What do you do when you “hit a wall?”
It depends. I’ve gotten better at being honest with myself and how I’m feeling, be it physical or mental. There are some days like, “You know what? This ain’t gettin’ done. It’s just not happening.” When I feel like that, then I pack it in and do something else for the rest of the day, and try again tomorrow. Then there are other times I hit a wall, but I can still feel like the words are there, the story is there; I just have to figure it out. In those cases, a walk helps. Pacing around the house. Talking out loud. Anything to let my mind wander for a bit. Usually within ten to thirty minutes the dam breaks.
Beyond that, I will often just open a new story and start something new or work on something old. Let my subconscious figure it out.
Do you use an outline—do you know exactly how the arc will play out—or do you just let the story develop as you write? If so, how do you outline? (notecards, etc.)
Hm…good question. I guess both.
What tends to happen, lately, is I free write a first draft, or at least half a first draft, and then go back and give it an outline. Sometimes I’ll use the Hero’s Journey as a template, not necessarily point by point, but just to see if there is in fact, you know—a plot. (There isn’t always, especially in that first draft.) My outlines usually just consist of a Word doc with notes (often longer than the book itself, it turns out), and sometimes an Excel doc so I can move things around and keep the plot points, character names and locations, etc., organized.
In terms of the arc, I don’t usually know exactly how things will turn out, though on some stories, I discover the ending about halfway through the writing. Zero’s ending has been the same since the first draft in 1993. For manicpixiedreamgirl, I knew most of where I wanted it to end up. But with Party – which went through more drafts than the other two – I never did know for sure how to tie it up until just before we pitched it.
How do you draft/revise? (i.e. do you just get it out in one big “dump,” then revise, revise revise, or do you revise and edit as you go)
I try hard to get the first draft out all in one go. Usually what happens is I’ll do a bit of revision as go, though. If I stop to revise too much, the book never gets done. And there’s no point in revising a story that had no middle or end. I think I’ve gotten better about completing those first drafts. They are awful, but that’s what first drafts are for!
What are some tools that you use? (reference guides, manuals, websites—a favorite pen/notebook/computer)
Well, I use the internet pretty extensively for research, whether it’s just a quick fact check or more in-depth. I often use videos, too—documentaries, usually, or travelogues. I do all of my composing on my desktop and an obsolete netbook. Come to think of it, the desktop is obsolete too, but I can’t stomach the newer versions of Word. I want my old 2003 version, thanks.
Lately I’ve also appreciated using a handheld recorder or the sound recording option on my cell phone to speak quick notes or lines of dialogue before I forget them. That’s been hugely helpful.
Beyond that, I don’t really have anything special to use while writing. I don’t think…
Do you use critique groups? How did you find them?
I do not, at the moment, but I did before I was published. I highly recommend the forums at www.absolutewrite.com, without whom I would never have gotten my first agent. No question.
I haven’t really had a formal critique group since college. I think there is value in them, but I also thing aspiring writers need to know what to look for—namely, people (or just one or two good beta readers) who will not only be honest, but know what to be honest about.
I’ve taken some creative writing classes that I really enjoyed attending, for instance, but in hindsight realized: I didn’t learn a damn thing! The feedback was nice and encouraging, and I made a few changes that helped the story…but a bunch of people saying “I liked this; I didn’t like this” is not the same as a knowledgeable person saying, “Your pacing is too slow in chapter two. Your secondary characters are flat and uninteresting. The plot is too convoluted. Cut chapter four entirely.” Things like that. Concrete ideas and suggestions that turn a decent book into a marketable book.
I don’t know how to find those. But if anyone in the group has published, that helps. But the real hard part is listening to criticism and knowing when the criticism is right. I always recommend checking local libraries and indie bookstores for groups.
On your current project:
What was your inspiration for this book?
Real life! Sort of.
I actually already had an outline of manicpixiedreamgirl that formed the spine of a one-man play I wrote and directed a few years out of high school, which itself was loosely based on real events. But manicpixiedreamgirl is not autobiographical; it’s just emotionally true to what I experienced.
What kind of research did you do for this book? And, were you surprised by something that you learned in your research?
I didn’t need to do much research with manicpixiedreamgirl, because it dealt with writing and theatre, two things I know a lot about. And since the story already had a framework from the play, there wasn’t much to look into.
On the other hand, for Sick (Oct. 1, 2013, Abrams/Amulet), I had to do a ton of medical research. Gross, disgusting medical research. I was surprised that my initial concept for the “zombies” in the novel (they are not undead, though the characters have a whole debate about that) was reasonably medically based, or at least could be.
How good did it feel to write that last line?
For manicpixiedreamgirl? Very good. Like closure. Much like Zero, this one had been with me a long time, and it was nice to put it to bed.
On the business of publishing:
How did you find your agent/editor?
I used AgentQuery.com and resources on AbsoluteWrite. I may have even used a print version of Writer’s Market, come to think of it. I built an Excel sheet with the agency’s name, agent’s name, when I submitted, and what if any response I got. I got picked up after about forty rejections by Andrea Brown Literary Agency, and I’ve been there ever since.
How has self-publishing shaped your career as a writer? / What is your opinion of self-publishing?
I haven’t yet done it, so I can’t speak with any authority. I will underline the “yet,” though, as I am already in the early stages of planning some self-published work.
My opinion of self-pub is this: One, it’s not going away. Two, to paraphrase Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park: “Writers can get so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
I’m less of a doomsayer about traditional publishing and agents than some of my best writer friends, but there’s no doubt the industry has changed and will continue to change. But I will also say that my most valuable instruction came from my agents and editors. I always recommend that writers give the traditional route a try first, if only for the experience of revision (and revision and revision and revision…) that goes into a good, marketable novel. Being able to write a good query and condense that novel into 200 words or less is a good skill to have for someone going the indie route.
I try to say this to every writing class I teach: Writing fiction is a business. And self-publishing is twice or more the work traditional publishing is because you’re doing it all alone. Yes, there are examples of big breakthroughs, but they are in the minority.
My friend Erin Jade Lange (author of Butter) recently said at a conference, “You have to love writing more than showers.” She’s dead right. You have to love this more than just about anything else on earth to make a real go of it. The man-hours it takes to really, truly put out a great novel is daunting. Or should be, if you’re think about it enough. Finishing up your NaNoWriMo book and plugging it into Smashwords on December 1 is not how to do it.
What can you share with our readers about marketing? (i.e. what, if any, support did you have from your publisher? Costs involved? Things that worked best/weren’t worth it, etc.)
Ya know, this is my major weakness. I’m still learning. I think postcards are a great idea, I carry those around with me. Business cards are still useful. Having an online presence is essential, even if you don’t want one.
Really the biggest thing was making ARCs and e-galleys available to the book bloggers out there. That’s where a lot of interest gets generated.
But when it comes to MG and YA authors, there’s no beating getting yourself in front of students. You don’t need a gimmick or anything; just be yourself and talk about things that matter to you in a way that will matter to them. I think I sell about as many books based on my writing classes and presentations as I do what any journal has to say about the novel itself.
(As I stated above, I can attest to Tom’s presentation skills. Not only have I seen him talk about his books, but I’ve taken his “Say Words” writer’s workshop. He helps writers portray realistic teen dialogue. And, the class that Tom had been working with at Estella Mountain HS came all the way across town just to celebrate his book release. Think he speaks to kids? Yeah.)
What is a trick that you’ve learned along the way that has made the writing process easier?
None that I am aware of…
Okay, no, just kidding. For me, (relative) silence and having a schedule. Those two things have helped more than anything else. Some authors call it “B.I.C.” which means, Butt In Chair. It means there’s no substitute for sitting down and writing. Now, I myself often stand while at my coffee shop, because they have these great, tall bar tables. But you get the drift. Even if the only time you can write is Thursday morning from five a.m. to seven a.m., then by cracky, that’s when you will write. And the more you do that, the easier it gets.
What writers inspire you?
The late John Bellairs (The Mummy, The Will, and The Crypt) influenced me a lot. So did early Stephen King stories and novels, and most of Robert Cormier’s books (The Chocolate War, etc.) I kind of want to be Laurie Halse Anderson when I grow up . . . or at least have the range of influence she does. I’d put A.S. King in there, too. These women are at the forefront of tangibly changing the lives of adolescents, and that’s what I want more than anything.
Really the writers who inspire me are the writers who I’ve become friends with since this whole thing started. There’s a whole clutch of YA and MG writers here in the Phoenix and wider Arizona area, and they are truly awesome people. I learn – present tense – a lot from them.
What do you like to read for enjoyment?
Lately I have been reading a lot of nonfiction. It started when a good friend of mine recommended the popular book Born To Run. I really enjoyed that. Then she recommended another that I fell in love with Animal Vegetable Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. A third followed. So now anything she recommends to me, I will read.
Then I began reading up on Gandhi while doing research, and that led to a whole list of must-reads. So these days, if I’m not re-reading some middle-grade novel from the eighties that I grew up with (kind of like comfort food, only, in words), I’m reading one or more nonfiction books on any number of topics.
We all know that learning from our mistakes is part of the process of becoming who we are. As a writer, what’s one lesson you’ve learned that you would like to pass on to others?
Writing fiction is a business. Sorry to go all serious on you, but yeah – the instant you decide you want someone to pay you for writing fiction, you are a small business owner. Act like it.
I’m so glad you said that. I think more writers need to realize that being an author is WAY MORE than writing a book.
What’s next for you?
Next is Sick (Abrams/Amulet), which releases October 1, 2013. After that is Random (Simon Pulse) in Summer 2014. I’m getting some side projects worked up, slowly. Mostly I just keep looking for places to present and to teach. It’s the best part of all this.
I can imagine. After seeing you speak several times, it shows that you really enjoy teaching others about writing, especially kids.
Thank you so much, Tom! I hope everyone has learned more about what it takes to be a writer. Readers, see below for more of Tom’s books, and a chance to win a signed hardcover copy of manicpixiedreamgirl!
For a chance to win a signed hardcover copy of Tom’s newest book, manicpixiedreamgirl,leave a comment about the interview, below! Winner will be chosen at random in one week and notified by email!!Good Luck!
We have FINALLY gotten some much needed rain down here in the desert. It is making for some very humid don’t-even-bother-straightening-your-hair days, but things have cooled off ever so slightly and the dust has been kept to a minimum.
There is a certain smell that springs from newly damp desert ground, but I suppose it smells just as good as any other place when long overdue rains arrive. I actually put it into the first chapter of my book. Here’s a peek:
The western sky was the kind of blue that comes after a cleansing summer rain, and the breeze still smelled of damp sage and pine. Leather reins lay slack in her fingers, resting on the saddlehorn in front of her. Closing her eyes, Ruby breathed in the beautiful day.
You’ll have to wait to read more, but I’ll try to pop in a few tidbits here and there. Until then, enjoy some recent photos of the girls (click images to enlarge):
Living in the desert can be great…sometimes. We have absolutely beautiful winters here. While the rest of the country is freezing and shoveling snow, we* are playing golf and drinking freshly squeezed orange juice.
Summer is creeping up on us. Last weekend we had our first round of 100+ temperatures. Like a little teaser, it only lasted a few days. Then we got the very welcome and much needed blessing of a brief rain shower.
In the desert you find yourself yearning for rain like a castaway scans the sea for ships on the horizon. It is a sign of life, sent from faraway.
We haven’t had nearly enough rain lately. Arizona’s yearly average for rain is about 7 inches. Last year, the Phoenix area totaled a little over four inches – for the whole year. This year so far we have not even reached .75 inches of rain.
Is a drought in the desert redundant?
All I know is, it’s dry. Too dry. And when it does rain, this is how I feel:
But in between winter and summer, we do get a little nibble of spring. It’s that sliver of time before all the non-native plants start turning brown from the heat.
You can tell it’s spring when the Palo Verde trees bloom.
The Palo Verde (“green stick”) is Arizona’s state tree, and gets its name from the green bark it wears.
In the spring, these trees burst into color, covered in yellow flowers, and virtually hum with the presence of bees, busily drinking the nectar and pollinating away.
When the blooms expire, they carpet the ground.
This yucca is about 25 feet tall.
oleanders (non-native), a hedge.
And since I am a midwesterner at heart, I have to have little bits of annual color on my front porch.
I wanted to get a picture of a Saguaro Blossom. Saguaros (pronounced sah-WAH-ro) are those huge cactuses (cacti) that you see in the stereotypical desert panorama:
The state flower of Arizona, the Saguaro blossom forms in clusters at the top of each arm of the cactus. They bloom April-June, and since they open at night, the main pollinators are nectar-drinking bats.
Did you ever wonder about the pleated structure of a cactus? Cacti are pleated to allow for the expansion that occurs when the plant is able to soak up large amounts of water, as it does in monsoon season. When the cactus dries out, the pleats deepen and become more pronounced. This has the added effect of being able to provide shade for itself from the heat of the sun.
Since you pretty much need a ladder to get a picture of the saguaro blossom, I thought I would just search for a good shot for you on the net. I have no idea how I’d get a ladder into my Civic.
Here you go:
And just for kicks, here are some new horse pictures:
As always, thanks for stopping by.
* and by “we,” I mean everyone else in Arizona. I don’t golf.
If you’ve watched the movie Hidalgo, you’ve seen a Haboob. There’s a scene where they have to outrun a huge dust storm. I mean HUGE. You may have been thinking, “Wow, great special effects – that can’t be real.”
While the special effects were spectacular, I can guarantee you, storms like that are real. I saw it happen last week.
This is what it looked like:
This storm was over 60 miles wide, and reached a height of 3,000 feet. It engulfed the entire Phoenix metropolitan area, otherwise known as The Valley of the Sun. My oldest son and I were out running errands at the time it hit, and as it approached us, the cloud looked like something out of a sci-fi movie, a huge black monster eating everything in its path.
While haboobs are not uncommon for this part of the world, they aren’t frequent, and as many Valley dwellers have remarked, never this huge. Most people I’ve spoken to said that they’ve never seen a dust storm of this magnitude before. The other strange thing about this one was the behavior of the storm.
Usually when you see an enormous wall of dust move across the desert, it is accompanied by fierce, gusty winds that make you feel as if you will blow over. First the wind, then the dust, blowing hard. Then there will be a strong downpour, dumping several inches of rain in a rather short period of time. And the before you know it the clouds are gone, the desert has been scrubbed clean, and everything has this wonderful damp woodsy-deserty smell.
And there will be a puddle in front of our house about the size of Lake Michigan. This is all normal behavior for Arizona monsoons.
But this storm had the creepy, eerie factor of just…hanging there. The wind stopped, and with minimal rain, the dust didn’t have anywhere to go. It was like fog, only dry and gritty, and for days afterward, everything was coated in a fine powder.
The haboob reminded me of a movie I once saw about the dust bowl days, and in the film, this woman literally goes crazy because everything in her house is covered in dust; she opens the cupboard to get the dishes, and dust just pours out; there’s dust piled up in the corners of the room, drifts of it.
And while our house didn’t look quite that bad, it sure wasn’t pretty. Especially when you throw in dog hair dust bunnies big enough to build a new dog…Am I the only one who hates doing housework? I didn’t think so.
And sometimes during weather like this I look out at my poor little British equines.
Gypsy horses certainly weren’t made for the dry, dusty, dirty desert. One of these days when I win the lottery :) I’ll have a summer place with lush green pastures for them to frolic and skip in, with daisies in their hair. Until then, they’ll just have to suffer through it like the rest of us.
I mean, a few months of unbearable heat is better than snow, windchill and below freezing temperatures, right?