NiFtY Author Donna Cooner

I met Donna at Katherine Longshore’s book launch, after I’d been stalking following her and her fellow muses via the YA Muses blog. Her debut young adult novel, SKINNY, will be released this coming Tuesday, October 1st, and I’m thrilled for her, and can’t wait to get my hands on that book!

BH: Welcome, Donna! I am so looking forward to reading SKINNY. What was the biggest joy of writing the book? What was the biggest challenge?

DC: My biggest joy in writing this book has been the personal connections people seem to have with the story.  Readers have shared some amazing struggles with self image and many of them have nothing to do with weight.  I love the fact people are able to relate to the story in so many different ways.  The biggest challenge for me was just completing the story.  My full time job as a  university administrator is hectic and time consuming, so finding time to write is always difficult.

BH: I heard from a little bird (or two birds) that SKINNY wasn’t your first choice of a book to work on. Can you share why it was more difficult to commit to this one than the other ideas you had?

DC: This book is incredibly personal.  In many ways, that made it a difficult choice to write.  I’ve tried to avoid the topic of obesity all my life.  The thought that I was actually going to write about it for the whole world to see was terrifying.  It probably would have been much easier to work on something that wasn’t so close to my heart, but I also think that’s the very reason it connected with readers.

BH: If you had a daughter, which of Ever’s attributes do you wish she shared? Which ones would you never want to see her display?

DC:  Ever is a talented singer. I would definitely hope any child of mine would be involved in the performing arts in some way.  Singing solos in church and performing in school musicals as a choir member gave me the self-confidence to be in front of people.  I learned to prepare well, practice, and perform under pressure.   As an adult, I still draw on those skills today when teaching and speaking to groups.

Ever is so extremely self-absorbed and self-critical that she almost misses out on some fantastic opportunities and potential friendships. Her journey is all about learning that lesson and coming to some positive realizations about herself.  I would hope my daughter wouldn’t have that same, so so difficult, struggle.  Reflection and introspection might be good for writers, but there definitely needs to be a healthy balance.  Especially when you are a young adult.

BH: Do you have a new project in the works you can tell us a little about?

DC:  It’s a little too early to talk about yet, but there is definitely a book two in the works.    It’s not a sequel to SKINNY, but will be set in the same Texas town.  You might even get to see Ever and Rat again.

BH: What does your workspace look like?

DC:  I have a second floor loft in my house that is my study.  My cat, Stu, tries his best to get in between me and the computer screen (see picture).  Roxanne and Cassidy, my chocolate labs, are usually lying on the floor near my feet.  The wall is adorned with notes and scene cards for my next project.  I also tack up pictures from teen magazines to represent what I think my current characters might look like.

BH: What is your favorite book on the craft of writing?

DC:  Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.

BH: Any words on advice to aspiring writers for keeping the hope alive?

DC: SKINNY is my third completed novel.  If anyone had reasons for giving up, and not writing book three, it was me.  But the story was there.  Waiting.  And so was this amazing journey.   I’m just so grateful for good writing friends who encouraged me when I most needed it or I would have missed it all.  Don’t give up.  Write your stories and keep writing your stories.  You never know what might be waiting for you just around the bend from your next “The End.”

BH: Thank you, Donna, for visiting and sharing about SKINNY and your writing adventures. For more on Donna and her writing, you can visit her website by clicking here. You can read the first chapter of SKINNY by visiting the YA Muses Blog here…and you can buy it on Tuesday!

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

The set-up: An airplane carrying Miss Teen Dream Beauty Pageant contestants crashes on a deserted island.

Main characters’ goals: I think a better question here would be “Who are the main characters?” because there are SO MANY. I’m not knocking it – it’s unusual and fun. But it’s hard to give specifics. Basically, the girls’ initial goal (collectively) is to get off the island and get home.

My reaction: In all honesty, I will admit this was not a fast read for me. There could be a number of factors here – revisions on my own work-in-progress, being sick, and whatever. But I think the main reason is my personal preference for singular point-of-view stories. I don’t generally enjoy dipping into the heads of many characters; I don’t like how it interrupts the flow of the story.

That said! Bray writes this story VERY WELL. The multiple viewpoint works for the book. We are expected to be torn out of the story line periodically, because this narrative has commercial breaks – yes, commercial breaks! – scripted into the book. So even though multiple (or is this omniscient?) POV isn’t something I always embrace, the approach works here.

Also, as the cover promises, it is very funny, very satirical, and overall enjoyable.

Of interest to writers: Again, commercial breaks! Satire! This is a unique story, told in a unique way (there are also footnotes, which I love). Even if you don’t want to read the whole 390-page book, it’s worth a peek just to see how Bray presents the story. The writing and plot are surprising, and “surprising” is a very refreshing thing in YA literature.

I always read Acknowledgements pages, and must also say, the Acknowledgements in Beauty Queens are hilarious.

Bottom line: Commercial breaks!

Reminds me of: Swamplandia! by Karen Russell (because of the utter bizarreness of the premise)


Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers

This book is awesome! Sorry to give you the bottom line first, but, well, there it is.

The set-up: The year is…a long time ago. 1845 (just cheated on Amazon.com). The place, Brittany, which is still as yet independent of France. Ismae, a daughter of the god Mortain (also called St. Mortain, the god of Death) has been abused by her father her whole life, until a mysterious convent takes her in. She trains to be an assassin, skilled in the arts of death.

Main character’s goals: Ismae’s assassin skills are required at court, where she must discover who is betraying the Duchess. And, of course, mete out a swift vengeance. Ismae needs to work with hottie Gavriel Duval, but her convent suspects him of treachery. Of course, because he is a hottie, Ismae begins to fall for him, and her secondary goals change throughout the course of the story.

My reaction: LaFevers has done so much that I want to do with my own manuscript! And she makes it look easy! So I’m jealous and impressed at the same time. Plus just plain entertained. The love-hate relationship between Ismae and Gavriel is wonderful, as is her character arc over the course of the story, and the doubts she begins to have about…ahem…certain things (no spoilers!).

Of interest to writers: Again, that character arc. Also, that relationship between Ismae and Gavriel – when is it NOT a good idea to pit the goals of the heroine directly against the goals of the romantic interest? Answer: never. Their conflict is so rich, and their attraction so great, it’s just yummy.

Bottom line: I already said it above. It’s awesome. Good news: it’s the first in a trilogy. It appears the second book features a heroine who is not Ismae, but she sounds just as fascinating and possibly even more complex.

You can click here to read the first chapter on Amazon.

Reminds me of: Graceling by Kristin Cashore

Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan

The set-up: Dash finds a red notebook in the shelves of his favorite used bookstore. Inside Lily (or her brother and his boyfriend) has written a series of challenges intended to weed out unworthy suitors. Instead of putting the book back after he has proved himself worthy, Dash keeps it, writes down more challenges, and gets the book back to Lily.

Main characters’ goals: Two main characters. Dash’s goal is to meet and fall in love with Lily…well, he’s half in love with her already after reading her challenges in the notebook. Lily’s goal is to have a merry Christmas, and to live up to the girl she has become in the notebook (a slightly added challenge because the notebook version of herself is more daring, more opinionated…just more).

My reaction: Dash is a bit of a pretentious ass, but he has vulnerabilities, too, so he’s still sympathetic. While his delight in words and language is not unbelievable, he doesn’t sound like your average teenager. Lily is also above-average intelligent, but I sympathized with her more. Is it a girl thing? I have no idea. I liked Dash, I really did. I loved that the thing he wants more than any other worldy possession is the complete Oxford English Dictionary. But Lily, she’s awesome.

Also, it’s a little bizarre to read a Christmas story when the outside temperature is pushing 100 degrees.

Of interest to writers: I was just reading on Maggie’s blog that in order to collaborate with another writer, you have to work well together…which I take to also mean, you have to like the person. This is Cohn’s and Levithan’s third collaborative YA book (they wrote the turned-into-a-movie Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist, as well as Naomi and Eli’s No Kiss List). I heart all of my writer friends, I truly do, but I don’t think I could collaborate on a whole novel.

Bottom line: It’s quirky and funny (the mall Santa who makes Dash molest him is my favorite highlight), and kept up my hope in the world.

Reminds me of: The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen


Where She Went by Gayle Forman

The set-up: Adam’s got his rock star career, celebrity girlfriend, a world of fans – everything he ever dreamed of…except Mia.

Main character’s goals: Although Adam’s ultimate goal would be to have Mia back, what he seems to be reaching for is closure, because he doesn’t believe it’s possible to get back together with Mia. Also, his goals have a lot to do with avoiding the other members of his band, with whom he used to be very close and now, not so much.

My reaction: Okay, I’m going to take off my nice gloves here, and say that I really would have preferred the story from Mia’s point of view. I fell in love with her in If I Stay, and was less than thrilled to start reading Adam’s voice all of a sudden (I try not to read the blurbs before I start a book). However, if the book were told from Mia’s point of view, it would no longer be Adam’s story, it would be hers, and it wouldn’t be the same story at all.

I will say, for what the story is (i.e. Adam’s, not Mia’s), it was done well, with all the emotional resonance and rockstar anguish you could hope for.

Of interest to writers: Is everyone else disappointed when a sequel is told from a new perspective? I can think of a few where I was disappointed. Are you ever tempted to write a sequel from a different character’s POV? Although I’m not ready to draft the sequel to my current work-in-progress, I’m thinking about it, and one side character in particular is shouting that she wants a starring role.

Bottom line: Not Mia’s story.

Reminds me of: Jane by April Lindner


NiFtY Author Erin Bow

Erin Bow first grabbed my attention when someone handed me a copy of Plain Kate (click here to read my review). I picked it up and could not stop. Her writing is so beautiful and…. oh, sorry. I just woke up from a fangirl swoon. Here’s our interview! Check out her pole-dancing writing studio! Exclamation points are a side-effect of fangirl-dom!

BH: You have been BUSY since I last visited your website. What are all these projects you have going? Wait, that would take forever. Could you choose one new project to describe in a paragraph for us here?

EB: Hmm, it’s hard to pick!  I guess most of my time is going into the first draft of my third novel, a dystopian for young adults called Children of Peace.  Here’s the pitch:

A world battered by climate shift and war turns to an ancient method of keeping peace: the exchange of hostages.   The Children of Peace – sons and daughters of kings and presidents and generals – are raised together in small, isolated schools called Prefectures.  Under the tutelage of gentle, monkish artificial intelligences, they learn history and political theory, and are taught to gracefully accept what may well be their fate: to die if their countries declare war.

Greta Gustafsen Stuart, Duchess of Halifax and Crown Princess of the Pan-Polar Confederation, is the pride of Prefecture Four.  Learned and disciplined, Greta is proud of her role in keeping the global peace — even though, with her country controlling two-thirds of the world’s most war-worthy resource — water —  she has little chance of reaching adulthood alive.

BH: Okay, yeah, I want to read it. You probably don’t need a beta reader, but if you do… Moving on. Tell us a little about your path to publication.

EB: Oh, dear.  The story of my path to publication makes people hate me, because I got so lucky.

I put a lot of research into agents, and landed the first one I queried, the one at the very tippy top of my list.  She worked with me for a couple of years on Plain Kate (it took some time, but in my defense I had two babies in there) and then sent it out to this amazing list of editors, seven of them, I think.  I not only got an offer right away, I got a bunch of offers (told you my agent was amazing), which ended up in an auction.  I was and still am thrilled to be with Arthur Levine, of Arthur A. Levine Books at Scholastic.  He’s a genius editor and a great cheerleader for the books he loves.

BH: I wouldn’t say your story makes me hate you. Much.

It has been months since I read Plain Kate, and I still keep going back to it when I want some inspiration for creating a great setting and mood combination. Did that mood come naturally to the writing of the book, or did you have to work at it? Please tell me you had to work at it.

EB: That mood comes courtesy of this 800-page volume of Russian fairytales I read just before starting Plain Kate.  I soaked them in and they took me over, and the mood just came tumbling out.

But of course there’s work.  A pet peeve of mine is historical fantasies where the world seems just a few inches deep, like a stage set.  Pretty: but not workable.  I think to really get a setting to work you have to know really nitty-gritty practical things.  What the people eat, and where they get it?  What do the tools of their trade look like?  What are they afraid of when the lights go out?  A good fantasy world needs an economy, an ecology, and a mythology.

Some of the things I needed to know for Plain Kate:  How do you polish a carving without sand paper?  How do you catch a chicken?   Keep your feet dry in rainy weather?  The research was truly endless, and I still feel as if it’s thin in places.

BH: You write both fiction and poetry, and some pretty great personal essays, too. How do you balance your different projects and the different parts of your brain that you get to tap into?

EB:  I try to set aside blocks of time.  Sometimes I, say, edit one book in the mornings and draft another in the afternoons.  Sometimes I give myself three weeks or a month to finish such and such a chunk, and do little else.  I try really hard not to switch back and forth between things.  Starting is always the hardest part, and starting over and over again is frustration and a waste of energy.  (And I do it all the time.  I have the attention span of a goldfish that’s off its meds.)

I also try to keep writing business out of my office: I do submissions and interviews and blogs and things  after the kids go to bed.  My office is dedicated to the writing part of writing.  I don’t have a phone or wifi.  (Recently some wifi has started leaking in.  I’m considering copper mesh.  See: goldfish, meds.)  When I’m in my office, I write.  When I’m not, I don’t.

BH: What does your workspace look like?

EB: I rented an office half a year ago – and with the exception of marrying my husband, it is the best choice I ever made.  The space is somewhat .. unusual. (Note: if the photos aren’t visible, you can click here to see Erin’s Office on Flickr.)

(Click on the images to make them bigger; enlarging them here was making them too blurry.)

People think I’m kidding when I say I work in a pole dancing studio, but I’m not.  My office is their spare room.  It can only be reached by crossing the dance floor — check those poles!  It’s cheap because I can’t use it at night, when the dance floor is, um, busy.  And it’s fun because when I need to clear my head I can swing around a little.


I furnished my office with a  hodgepodge of things that were either free or cheap – but it doesn’t feel makeshift.  It feels cozy and practical, like a yurt.  In this picture you can see the little loveseat (curbsourced) for curling up, a chair (Salvation army, recovered) handy for pulling up to the loveseat for coffee with friends, and of course a big desk (Goodwill) with lots of room for bulletin boards. You can see the picture boards here for Sorrow’s Knot (upper left) and Children of Peace (lower right).

My office is a highly ritualized space – and I refuse to feel silly about that.  I often find one needs to coax oneself closer to inspiration, the way a church coaxes one closer to God.  So my office is furnished with ritual objects and relics.


Here, you can see the objarka my editor sent me when bidding on Plain Kate, beside Plain Kate’s NYT review; a doorway shrine; a hand-cast pewter cat given by a good friend and some fiddly stones; the timer of short naps and the glass bird of holding when you want to start over; the tin angel celebrating the finish of my second novel, Sorrow’s Knot; the wall of things that mean stuff to me, including the porcelain birds that were my great grandmother’s, a map of Tenochtitlan, a bundle of grass from the monastery where I wrote my first book of poetry, a 1942 advertisement for a Waterman “Commando” fountain pen, and a reproduction of the original cover of A Room of One’s Own.

BH: Your office has inspired me. I am now working on converting our converted garage guest room into my writing studio. Must find a great big pole.

What is your favorite book on the craft of writing?

EB: Mary Oliver’s Rules for the Dance, on meter in poetry.  It is basic – you don’t have to go into being able to scan, which is good, because I have dreadful trouble with scanning.  But it is also bottomlessly good, and I could read it over and over, just to soak it up.  I read that book, and Heaney’s Beowulf, and somehow decided that what the world really needed was a children’s version of Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight in 200 rhymed quatrains, beginning with a beheading and turning on an illicit kiss.  I can’t imagine why I can’t get that published.

BH: (I have difficulty with scanning, too. Glad to hear I’m not alone in this.) What is the best writing advice anyone has given you?

EB: Ribe Tuchus – keep your butt in the chair.  Sit still.

My biggest enemy, as you’ve probably guessed by now, is inertia: the reistance to starting.  But if I promise myself I’ll just Ribe Tuchus for ten minutes, keep my hand moving across the page – often that’s all it takes to stop hating myself and wanting to get a job in a bank.

Every day I have to figure that out again.  (Goldfish.)  Ribe Tuchus, Ribe Tuchus, Ribe Tuchus.

BH: Thank you, Erin, for taking the time! For more on Erin and her writing, you can visit her (very awesome website) at erinbow.com She’s also on twitter as @erinbowbooks

Danger. Have Book. Will Ignore. Everything.

Long, long, long ago, when I was a little munchkin, I loved to read books. Fast forward through the awkward middle school years, the dark teen angsty years, the wow-I-can-sleep-in-every-damn-day college years, and into the I-will-never-get-to-sleep-in-ever-again years of parenting. And I still love to read books.

It isn’t always as easy to find the time, and I almost never have the peace I used to have for it. But I still sneak books in wherever I can. While I’m fixing lunch, I might take a little extra time than usual. There might be one or two unnecessary trips to the bathroom during the afternoon. For the excruciating weeks when I had to stand in Z’s doorway as she fell asleep, I listened to audiobooks.

But it’s always a risk. If the book is terrible (and again and again I wonder how these things are even published, but that will always remain one of the world’s unsolvable mysteries)…where was I? Oh yes, if the book is terrible, and I read the whole thing (as I almost always do, because even if I hate the main character or think the plot is completely contrived or will scream my head off if another teenage protagonist LOVES the library)…where was I? So if I get through it, I’m grouchy because I wasted time on a dumb book.

The even bigger risk, though, is a book that sucks me in. With a short one, like Elizabeth Scott’s The Unwritten Rule, where the main character is totally completely forever in love with her best friend’s boyfriend, I’m pretty safe. I can get through the book in a couple of hours, quickly unload the dishwasher, read Z a story and jet to the park, and I feel like a good stay-at-home mommie.

But if it’s a suck-you-in book and it’s big and fat, like Jennifer Donnelly’s Revolution, and I have to get to the end of the story and it takes me more than a day, and I let everything go – housework, play dates, personal hygiene…those are the dangerous books. It’s a safe bet that we will eat, but the meals might be a little later than usual, and perhaps less involved. And heaven forbid if Z’s potty breaks don’t coincide with my own. “You have to what? But I just sat down with my book!” Suddenly I regret potty training.

If you want to get sucked in, here are some recent favorites. I’ve reviewed some of them here in my blog and helpfully provided the links…but why waste the time on a review when you can go read the book?

So it’s the weekend, you’ve got plenty of time. Get thee to a bookstore!