Category Archives: Writing

The paralysis of trying to “do it right”

Cosplayer Ryosama as Cowgirl Ed (Photo by Digital Celsius)
Cosplayer Ryosama as Cowgirl Ed (Photo by Digital Celsius)

Children’s literature is powerful.

I know this because certain books have changed my life. They have changed the way I view the world and my place in it.

I know this because of the brouhaha that explodes whenever some journalist writes about whether young adult fiction is too dark, too complex, too negative, too whatever.

I know this because of the  #YAsaves response to criticism of darkness in YA.

I know this because the campaign to increase diversity in children’s literature has taken over my internet feeds and sent reverberations through media culture in general. (Check out #WeNeedDiverseBooks)

The companion to the power and influence of children’s literature upon real, live, beating-heart humans is the pressure it puts on me as a writer of children’s literature to “do it right.”

Author Christa Desir captured this exactly in her review of THE BUNKER DIARY by Kevin Brooks. (Read the whole thing here.)

I’m fascinated by the burden of responsibility that seems to fall on the shoulders of those of us who write for children. I’m not completely clear who decided on the rules about YA books, but there seems to be an insistence that if the books are going to be about difficult things, then they need to somehow “save”. I have long hesitated at this notion that YA Saves because I think it puts us in the position that we must then acknowledge that the opposite can be true too. That if we’re going to assert that YA books save lives, then we have to allow that they can damage people. And this power makes me very uncomfortable.

I am only me and yet I am trying to write about people different from me with experiences far broader than my own. I want to “do it right.” I want to be authentic and reflective and respectful and honest. I want my books to be “true” even in fiction.

And in all this striving to tell stories that stretch beyond me, there is a very real danger of paralysis as a writer. In a recent conversation with my coauthor Kiersi Burkhart about our middle grade series Second Chance Ranch, I found myself expressing some very real fears about my ability to write diversity. I care so much about doing it right that I was afraid to do it at all. I can’t write about gamers. I can’t write about an overweight character. I can’t write about a black girl.

But the alternative?

Not writing.
Or worse, only writing about a bunch of skinny white girls who love horses.

I can’t face either of those alternatives.

In the midst of all this angst, I found Kate Brauning‘s wonderful post on Pub Hub about Writing Ethical YA. You absolutely must click here and read the whole thing, but let me leave you with the line I found most encouraging, the one that allowed me to shake off the paralysis.

If you’re showing real life and helping fill in the gaps, you’re doing just fine, and I want to read your book.

Thank you, Kate. This is exactly what I needed to hear. Now to get back to that black cowgirl who loves cosplay and isn’t super psyched about her weight…

Double knot those laces!

IMG_1533I’m getting really excited for the publication of my nonfiction book SNEAKER CENTURY: A HISTORY OF ATHLETIC SHOES (Twenty-First Century Books, January 2015). It was fun book to write and it will be fun to see it in the hands of readers. The book earned a nice review from Kirkus and another from Booklist. Here’s one from School Library Journal that leaves me grinning ear to ear. I’m glad to be able to share it with you.

Trainers. Tennies. Kicks. No matter what they’re called, athletic shoes have played an important role in American culture and the global economy during the past century, and this insightful look at the history of sneakers traces the shoes, from their humble origins in the Industrial Revolution to their current status as part of a multibillion dollar industry. While the text acknowledges the crucial role shoes play in athletic performance—a fact of which most readers are likely well aware—it does not dwell upon it. Instead, Keyser peppers the narrative with lesser-known human interest stories, such as the sibling rivalry between shoe manufacturers Adi and Rudolf Dassler that spawned Adidas and Puma. Equally fascinating is Keyser’s examination of the role youth culture has played in the athletic shoe industry (and vice versa) as well as her look at the seamier side of shoe manufacturing, including the extreme disparity between foreign labor costs and the price of the final product. While not comprehensive, the text provides readers with a solid understanding of sneaker culture. The graphics complement the text without overshadowing it, though there’s a lot of white space on some pages. Readers of all stripes will appreciate the role sneakers play in our lives. A fun and informative addition.

–Audrey Sumser

The kindness of book people

IMG_4920This weekend, I was lucky enough to spend three days in beautiful Dumas Bay with book people. I woke today wondering how to capture the SCBWI-WWA retreat in a blog post.

Bald eagles.
A run in the rain.
Cookies and whisky.
Feeling like a giantess in my tiny convent room.
Hilarity and sand dollars.
Open hearts.

How could I give this to you, I wondered, in a wrapping of words that captured falling leaves and infinite mud flats and the way sound carries over water?

Then my writer friend, Kiersi, posted an article about what makes relationships last.

The answer? It is so simple. Kindness. Walking toward the outstretched hand and taking it. Holding out your own.

In one of the sessions this weekend, Sara Crowe, talked about the characteristics of career authors. One of them was to be kind, to reach out your hand to the editors and the assistants, to the published and the not-yet-published, to all you meet along the way. And while he might not have realized it, Andrew Karre reminded us to be kind to ourselves, to shut out the noise of reviews and the market, the expectations of genre, and the general cacophony that gets in the way of turning the multitude of wonders in our cupboard into story.

So this is what I want to tell you about my weekend: It was replete with kindess.

  • The kindness of Sara and Andrew when they talked about their authors and their books written and unwritten.
  • The kindness of critique partners who saw strength in the craft of others and named it.
  • The kindness of writers who shared the stories of their hearts with me and who, in turn, listened to my own. 
  • The kindness of laughing together (and leaving no one behind on the mud flats).
  • The kindness of every moment that honored both the gifts and challenges of this thing we do, this thing we share, the way we strive to bring forth the story only we know.

Thank you, Andrew and Sarah. Thank you, Allyson and Lois. Thank you, compatriots. It was a beautiful weekend.

Olympic endorsements, rap music, Air Jordans, jogging in the 70s — Discuss!

?????As the release date for my newest nonfiction title SNEAKER CENTURY approaches, reviews are starting to come in.

Nerve-wracking? Yes.
Exhilarating? Also Yes.

It’s exciting to know that real live humans will be reading my book soon. I had a ton of fun writing this one. It’s nice to know that Kirkus thought it was good (other than the personal trauma of the 1970s jogging boom, which I totally understand). If you are a blogger, reviewer, teacher, librarian, or bookseller, I can send you a pre-approved link to the digital ARC on NetGalley. Just drop me a quick note.

Anyway… here’s what Kirkus had to say!

A comprehensive look at the rise of sneakers in American culture. Exploring a narrow field that nevertheless yields plenty of interest, the author shines a light on several aspects of sneaker culture. Topics range from the footwear’s early development in the early 19th century to its rise in popularity that coincides with the rise of the American teenager. The book’s layout augments the text with colorful infographics and various small sidebars that, while not necessary to the historical narrative, are well worth highlighting on their own. Discussions of the shoe’s rise to fame in the 1950s and resurgence in the 1980s (both thanks to popular figures like James Dean, Steve McQueen, Run-D.M.C. and Michael Jordan) are the best bits. A portion regarding Olympic runners and shady endorsement dealings makes for another amusing section. A discussion of the global economics of shoe manufacturing arrives a bit too late in the book to capture readers’ interest, and it doesn’t help that this section is much less elaborate than all those that came before it. Another lesser moment is a look back at the 1970s fad of “jogging,” something no one wants to be reminded of. An illuminating and amusing look at a subject with much more history than one might expect. (Nonfiction. 12-16)

Internet: all things good, bad, and ugly

If only internet trolls were this cute
If only internet trolls were this cute

Back in high school when I spent hours on the floor of the blue room in Powell’s reading anything and everything that caught my fancy, I never would have imagined contacting any of the authors I loved. How would I find them? Surely they were too busy and important to talk to me. They wrote books not socialized! My interactions with the authors were mediated through the page. Whether I loved their books or hated them, the authors never knew about it.

Now I write books but everything has changed.

Technology has dismantled the barriers between reader and author. Mostly this is a beautiful thing. When I love a book, I tweet or email the author and tell them so. Often they respond and it feels great to have made a personal connection with someone who made something that touched me. On the flip side, when someone reaches out to me to say they like something I have written—Wow! Zing! Amazing! That feels great too.

Thanks to Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, Google+, Tumblr and the rest, lots and lots of readers and writers are talking about books. It’s a great way to find delicious new titles and to explore literature in community. I’m learning all the time from the smart people I am now privileged to connect with thanks to ye old internet. I love that.

But these past few week… oh man… I’ve been wanting to go back to the good old days where I read a book, liked it or hated it, and that was it. Instead I’ve followed the train wreck that is the case of author Kathleen Hale responding to negative reviews by stalking the blogger at her home. (I’m not going to link to the article in the Guardian. Sorry click counters.) This, writ large and very ugly, is the situation in these “good” new days of the Internet.

Many people review and blog about the books they read. It is easy for any author to find and read all these opinions—love it, hate it, fell asleep reading it, would rather clean toilets than read it. It is hard for us to hear the bad reviews. (It hurts.) But is, in fact, our job to take the bad with the good because, after all, we write books so actual people will actual read them. (It still hurts.)

On the reader, and especially the book blogger, side of things, we get to love or hate those books. We really do. And we we get to talk about them online if we want to. Free speech, people. And I rely on the critical reviews (i.e. well-rounded, literary criticism like that of @catagator, @chasingray, and @tlt16) of knowledgeable, thoughtful bloggers to guide both my reading choices and my pursuit of better craft in my own writing.

This should, in the brave new world of interconnected authors and readers, be civil discourse on ideas and craft and story and emotions and the whole messy business of narrative. When it works, it’s beautiful. When it fails, I want to decapitate the internet.

The personal fails go both ways. From the aforementioned author stalking a blogger and making other bloggers fear for their safety to the reader who has cyberstalked author Melissa Anelli with a multi-year avalanche of violent threats.

And then there are the anonymous multitudes who shower feminist writers, gamers, cosplayers, critics and vloggers with threat after threat after threat—rape, murder, rape then murder—for exercising their right of free expression.

Who are these people?
Who does this?

What reader is so infuriated by a piece of writer that he or she rushes to the computer, types I am going to rape and murder you, and then hits send?

This is a question that keeps me up at night. It’s a fear that niggles at me when I write something that I know will trigger someone. It’s a fear that is prompting some book bloggers to question whether they want to keep doing what they are doing.

What do we do?

Like blogger Liz B, we talk about it. There’s no sense pretending this stuff doesn’t happen. We can follow blogger Kelly J’s excellent privacy steps, and for writers dealing with reviews, there’s the Carrie Mesrobian approach—complain to our trusted in circles and let it go (plus Norman Reedus). We can recognize the way we make ourselves vulnerable online (good piece here).

For me as a writer, I can’t let fears about how someone will judge my work get in the way of the process and so I will always return to the story. Reading and writing books have saved my life. I want connections with authors and readers. Let’s make those connections a force for good in the universe.

Right and Real

IMG_9773I won’t lie. Writing a book is hard. It’s often a slog, a get up, type words, hate words, type more words, go to sleep kind of slog.

But sometimes… oh yes sometimes… it’s bone-deep, flesh-thick love.

And happy, surprisingly happy.

I’ve written elsewhere about the pain and loss that went into the writing of my debut novel THE WAY BACK FROM BROKEN. Long ago when I took the first chapters to my critique group, Viva Scriva, Nicole asked me if I was ready to dig into such personal and painful material.

I was ready but that didn’t make it easy.
There was much heartbreak along the way.

This week I spoke with my editor, Andrew Karre, about his editorial notes. Today, I dove into yet another revision.  What I found was joy. I am reading back through this sad sad story and feeling elated that so much of it is right and real. (Yes, I am singing One Song Glory from RENT in my head right now.) As I dive deep into each sentence and every word, I have to opportunity to make this story even more true.

I have done one good thing.
That is enough.

Grab Your Pony and Get Ready for a New Book Series

Me at six with Jeannie and her foal

I was a horse crazy girl.
I’m a horse crazy grown-up.

Recently, I found out that one of my fav writer friends, Kiersi Burkhart,  grew up on a ranch in Colorado. Together we dreamed up Second Chance Ranch, a place in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains where trouble kids go to find their way again.

We are so excited to announce the sale of our new book series to Darby Creek, an imprint of Lerner, coming your way in 2016 and 2017. Each book features a girl and her horse, meeting life’s challenges together. Kiersi and I can’t wait to tug on your heart strings and make you want to saddle up and ride with us!

PL second chance ranch

 Sometimes what a kid needs most is a horse.



My beating heart

IMG_9665Today words don’t come easy. I am awash in emotion, celebrating, reveling, and yes, weeping too.

My story has found a home at Carolrhoda Lab.

Andrew Karre took world rights to Amber Keyser’s YA novel, The Way Back From Broken, in a two-book deal. The novel follows two adolescents, one 15 and one 10, who are both older siblings of infants who died. When the two kids are taken into the Canadian wilderness by one of their mothers, the publisher said, they find disaster, “in addition to the fragile hope and terrible beauty that mark the way back from broken.” Agent Fiona Kenshole at Transatlantic Literary brokered the deal for Keyser. The second book in the deal is a currently untitled YA novel.

What this lovely announcement from Publishers Weekly doesn’t capture is what this story means to me. In a Dear Sugar piece, Cheryl Strayed talks about her book, the book she had to write, which pulsed in her chest like a second heart. Upon  writing the last word, she wept. “I didn’t know if people would think my book was good or bad or horrible or beautiful and I didn’t care. I only knew I no longer had two hearts beating in my chest. I’d pulled one out with my own bare hands.”

THE WAY BACK FROM BROKEN is that book for me. When I brought it forth, it cemented the tender repairs to my shattered self. When I laid it before my friend and agent, Fiona Kenshole, she knew it for what it was–an offering, a prayer, the completion of a promise. She guided it into the most trustworthy of hands.  Andrew Karre is an editor who knows blood on the page when he sees it.

I am grateful.

Poets, Virgins, LSD & More on the Writing Process Blog Tour

1980 Amber reading
10 Year Old Me, Weird Already

One of the best things about being a writer is getting to know other writers. We’re a quirky bunch, I tell you! So when poet Drew Myron and novelist Rosanne Parry invited me to join an online conversation about writing process, I jumped on board. Who wouldn’t want to listen to a bunch of writers spill the inner workings of their wordy brains?

In a series of blog posts like this one, we’ll each answer four questions about our writing process. You’ll get to see behind the scenes and discover some new books along the way.

Once you get a taste of Drew’s evocative, tender language, I know you’ll crave more. Visit her writing process post here and a link to her books here.

Rosanne is a master of middle grade fiction. She creates deftly-drawn characters who never let you go. Her writing process interview will post to her blog on the 17th, and her books, including the amazing WRITTEN IN STONE are here.

And on to my personal variety of writer-geekdom…

What are you working on?

I’m working on a project that scares me. And that’s good. It’s pushing me way out of my comfort zone in topic—it’s a young adult anthology of essays by women about losing their virginity—and in process because I’m acting as an editor for the contributors, something I have never done before.

But in spite of my jitters about how such an edgy book will be received, I am more convinced every day of its importance. I hope that the book will empower readers to take charge of their own sexuality, whether that means saying no or saying yes. If young women don’t, someone else will take charge of it for them.

THE V-WORD will be published in 2016 by Beyond Words, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.

How does your work differ from other writers in your genre?

The only book on the shelves that I think is comparable to this one is LOSING IT, an anthology of short stories by YA writers. It’s a brilliant collection and you should read it, but it’s fiction. THE V-WORD is 100% true, and you’ll be astounded by the raw honesty of these talented writers. Every day I’m grateful that I have the opportunity to bring these stories to the readers who need them.

Why do you write?

Because I am stubborn and complicated and I like stories of all kinds.

What is your writing process?

My nonfiction books are usually sold on proposal so I do a lot of research up front. I need to have a very good sense of the story I am trying to tell and the shape it will take before any writing begins. The key to nonfiction is finding the right structure to carry the focal theme through to the end. After the book is under contract, the editor and I will refine the structure and outline together. With all that groundwork done, I start writing and add in research as needed.

For fiction, most of the pre-writing I do is around finding the voice of the main character. Once I have a sense of who this person is, then I generate a rough outline of the plot. The details sort themselves out as I proceed with drafting, my favorite part. After the first draft, comes the scissor-stage where I cut the thing apart and tape it back together. I have come to accept that there will always be radical and painful change.

But like I said, I’m stubborn.


Now I invite you to visit the blog of Kiersi Burkhart, who most famously described me as “stubborn as fuck.” She’s a fun and feisty writer of middle grade and YA fiction as well as a contributor to THE V-WORD. 

While you’re on the move, I encourage you to visit Ruth Feldman, writer of historical YA time travel novels. Ever wondered about the connections between free speech, LSD and medieval Paris? Look no farther than THE NINTH DAY.

Me and the Deadline God

The Deadline God by Wylie Elise Beckert

The only thing I like about deadlines is telling people, “I’m on deadline” and watching the impressed/sympathetic look on their faces.

Really, that’s the only thing.

Getting things done as a writer (with all those hours and hours of potentially distraction-filled time) is knowing your own process, especially knowing what is likely to get you bogged down. I have learned to read myself pretty well.

Stuck but almost breaking through the wall feels one way, and it means I need to stay in my chair and power through. Stuck but depleted feels different and means I need to get out of my chair and take a run to recharge my batteries. Stuck and never doing this again requires whiskey.

One thing I know for sure is that I don’t like or need deadlines. I know what needs to happen to get a book done, and most of the time, I like doing it. I plan my time so that there isn’t a rush to finish line. I don’t do my best work under pressure or time-constrained or sleep-deprived. I am not a sprinter. I do endurance best.

On the wilderness canoe trips we take every summer, I carry a very heavy pack (half my body weight) over portages. I am slow but I don’t stop much and I get to the end when I get there. On the lakes, I can paddle for hours–not fast but steady. I’m a long-distance kind of gal.

But sometimes things happen.

In the lead up to the book I turned in yesterday, for example, I had three travel days for work, tax day (with unexpected complications), my daughter’s birthday party, Passover (hosted at my place), and my usual everyday stuff.

So I needed an extra day from my editor, which she was happy to offer, but made me feel like I’d let myself down. (Mantra: professional writers meet all deadlines.) And I had to work in a pound-it-out way that is very far from my natural rhythm.

Now I know there are those of you who love deadlines, who relish the chase and love the hot breath of the Deadline God on your neck. Happy times for you people!

But me…

… not so much.

If you don’t mind, I’ll get back to work now. There are deadlines in sight, and I plan to meet them for a civilized cup of tea.