I always leave writing conferences full of new ideas. Maybe a workshop has offered insight into some element of craft that I want to implement in my work in progress, or perhaps I’ve gleaned new strategies for social media and marketing.
I came home from the SCBWI-Western Washington Spring Conference with something a little different and probably far more valuable.
Sharon Flack and Nina Laden reminded me about intuition. Can I step back from over-analyzing and over-planning my projects and embrace the deep knowing of what my story needs?
Rachel Or asked us to trust in each other, in our art, and in ourselves.
David Wiesner spoke of faith in the ultimately unknowable act of creation that occurs when you commit to showing up on the page. Can I believe whole-heartedly in the process by which ideas are made manifest?
And to all this I will add kindness. A thousand thank yous to Dana Armin, Dana Sullivan, and Lily LaMotte for taking such good care of all of us this weekend. I was so happy to be among my people, to see your projects come to fruition, and to share my own. This writing business can be solitary and frustrating and heart-breaking, but it is also filled with the best people in the world.
And thus I begin work this morning full to brimming…
I was happy to be featured on the Lerner Books blog today! Lerner is the publisher of my current nonfiction, Sneaker Century: A History of Athletic Shoesas well as The Way Back from Broken (coming October 2015). You can view the post here or read on below.
What was your favorite book you read growing up?
Hands down, it was The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis. I’ve probably read it thirty times. Oh, how I love Reepicheep! Close on the heels of this book comes My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George. I always wanted my own Frightful.
What are some of your favorite children‘s/young adult books that you‘ve read recently?
Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt, El Deafo by Cece Bell, Rollergirl by Victoria Jamieson, Nation by Terry Pratchett, and I‘ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson.
Who are your favorite contemporary fellow authors?
I can’t believe you are making me choose! That is a very cruel thing to do to a reader!
Right now I’m still gushing over Gary Schmidt. I admire the subtle ways he allows his characters to reveal deep emotional truths. A. S. King does this too. The writing of both Jandy Nelson and Laini Taylor has a pell-mell, technicolor intensity that I love. Nancy Farmer is a bomb story-teller, and she can do anything from survival stories in Africa to Vikings to alternate reality drug dealers.
Why did you start writing?
Before I was a writer, I was an evolutionary biologist. These might seem like really different jobs, but at the core, they are the same. I’m an observer. I want to understand how the world works and what makes people tick. Doing science and writing books are both ways to do this.
What are the hardest/easiest parts of writing for you?
The hardest part is when I let myself get emotionally invested in all the parts of the writing business that are out of my control: reviews, book sales, contracts, awards, etc. The easiest part is committing myself whole-heartedly to the story. That is what matters most.
How do you gather ideas for your books?
Ideas are easy. They are everywhere for the gathering. The trick is getting enough ideas to glom together into a book. Anything that interests me gets added to a list in my GTD software (The Hit List) called “Book Ideas.” Right now it has 28 entries including horse genetics, bronc-rider George Fletcher, and something called The Doom Dimension. For the current book, several of these ideas developed a magnetic attraction and BOOM! Suddenly there was enough bubbling out of the explosion to make a whole novel.
Do you have a writing routine?
As soon as my kids get on the bus, I’m at my desk. I take 15 minutes or so to glance at my email and check in on Twitter (@amberjkeyser) then I open Scrivener and get to work. When drafting, I try to hit 1,000 words before I take a break. When revising I try to work for at least three hours. Break time usually means a walk in the forest with our new puppy, Gilda. After lunch, I buckle down for another two hours.
How do you deal with self-doubt or writing blocks?
When the writing gets tough and I’m agonizing over every word, I have to ask myself what kind of “stuck” am I experiencing. Am I struggling because my batteries are depleted and I need to take care of myself? Or is it hard because writing is painful and I need to keep trying? When it is the former, I go for a run in the forest. Otherwise, I stay at my desk and remind myself that even if what I write isn’t great, I will fix it in revision. It is also important to remember that your writing environment can have a huge impact on your productivity. For instance, I have just purchased some new commercial grade chairs for my home office so that I can be as comfortable as possible when sitting at my desk. After all, no one wants back pain or an uncomfortable chair to distract them from writing.
Sneaker Century and The Way Back from Broken are really different books. How do you manage to write both nonfiction and fiction?
For me, writing any book requires the same things: free-flowing nonlinear creativity, deep research into the core elements of the story, detailed to-do lists on how to execute the plan for the book, and disciplined, grind-it-out time in front of the computer. They may occur in different proportions, but the ingredients are always the consistent. No matter the book, I have the same tasks: find the right structure to tell the story, create a voice that makes you want to read on, and bring the world to life with details you can sink your teeth into.
Do your kids influence your writing? If so, how?
Sometimes I write about very difficult subjects. You might assume that I would steer away from the edge for fear of what my children will think, but the opposite is true. They need me to be brave, incisive, and above all, deeply honest.
Tell us something we don’t know about you!
My very first book, penned in 2nd or 3rd grade, was called Anatomy of a Bruise. I remember one particular illustration that I was very proud of. It depicted the inevitable consequences of an apple falling off a table and smacking the ground. Another showed a time lapse series of a bruise healing from purple to greenish-yellow to gone. Also, I crocheted the cover with orange and turquoise yarn. Clearly, I was a yarn bomber way ahead of my time!
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?
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…
I’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.
This 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.
A run in the rain.
Cookies and whisky.
Feeling like a giantess in my tiny convent room.
Hilarity and sand dollars.
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.
As the release date for my newest nonfiction title SNEAKER CENTURY approaches, reviews are starting to come in.
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.
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)
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.
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.
I 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 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!
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.