Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Long View

Another priceless treasure landed in my in-box this week. Here's a little excerpt...:

I'm here on behalf of my fiancée. She's a huge fan of your Sammy Keyes book series--she has almost the whole series, library-bound. She's from the Mississippi Gulf Coast and has been reading your series from before Katrina hit the area. The books have remained by her side through that disaster and many others she has faced in her life. She's the strongest woman I know and reading your series has been very important for her.

This letter made me realize that taking the long view - moving forward with persistence, staying true to vision and purpose despite marketplace fads - does eventually return rewards beyond measure. I can't stress enough how much I appreciate that my editor and publisher enabled me to reach the conclusion of an 18-book, nearly 20-year series. Not all editors or publishers are willing to take a view that lengthy.

When the first Sammy Keyes book was published, I tried to figure out how to get on Oprah. I wasn't the only one - every author wanted to be on Oprah. I think authors drive their in-house publicists mad with all their enthused suggestions. My publicist at the time told me something really wise. She said, "You don't want to be on Oprah. You want a long, slow build. You want a sustainable career."

Of course I didn't agree. I didn't see how the two were mutually exclusive. Taking the long view takes confidence that you'll get another chance after this book. It takes patience. Back in 1998, I wasn't long on patience. I wanted things to happen now.

The long view is way easier to get perspective on from the far side. You know, after you've traversed twenty years and have a sustained career to analyze. It's almost impossible to truly take the long view when you're at the beginning of your career because you don't know how things are going to go.  And it feels almost like cheating to look back on a successful career and say, See? This is what happens with steady, consistent effort. You have an awesome career without the catapult of Oprah. You built your catalog without the distraction of a blinding spotlight. You got to hunker down and focus on the work, not the trappings. 

It's taken twenty years, but my publicist was right - I didn't want to be on Oprah. Sammy might not have become...Sammy.

My purpose for the Sammy Keyes series went far beyond forays into clever sleuthing. Sure, I love a good mystery. Good mysteries are awesome! But the larger picture of Sammy's purpose is what sustained me across the series and through twenty years of writing about her. It's what kept me going back, full of enthusiasm - not just for the next mystery - but for the next chapter in Sammy's life. It was about her evolution. About her learning to calibrate her moral compass. About her character, her strength.

If you're looking for girl power, I've got 18 kick-ass books for you. 

But in the marketplace, what happens is, people need to figure out where to shelve, how to categorize, and how to summarize.

For Sammy, that became "mystery" (clever sleuth) and "series" (of little literary merit).

And since there wasn't a contract for 18 books and there was no guarantee that all 18 would be written or published, there was little talk (other than from me) about the larger picture. 

But the larger picture is the key reason for the series. To instill the notion of nurturing individuality and internal strength in young readers - and yes, especially girls - is of such greater value than assembling the pieces of a clever puzzle. Yet breaking out of the "mystery" and "series" molds seemed, ironically, a more and more remote enterprise as the story unfolded and deepened. Would any critics / reviewers ever read from beginning to end and understand what was going on here? 

After reading one or two, most probably assumed they knew the drill, and now with 18 books to catch up on and a deluge of new works to review each season the answer has became, more and more clearly, probably not.

And yet...I get mail. Like the letter from the fiance. And it reinforces that in the long run, the long view does pay off. A letter like that makes me teary with gratitude: You read. You understood. You felt her. She helped you believe in yourself. 

Now that the series is complete and all 18 books are available without having to wait for the next installment to come out, I'm hopeful that a whole new generation of readers will discover and devour these books, and that they, too, will see Sammy as a friend who helped them face the troubles and roadblocks in their life. I'm looking forward to their letters. And their kids' letters.

Look at me. I'm taking the long view. 

Sunday, August 13, 2017

"Bryce" & "Juli" Weigh In On "Wild Bird"

It was in August seven years ago when Flipped came out in theaters. It was an exceptional experience. Many of you have already heard the tales, so I won't repeat them, but for those of you who haven't, track down a copy of the anniversary edition of Flipped and read the thirty new afterward pages to get a sense of what went on behind the scenes. From meeting Rob Reiner (who directed the film) for the first time to why the movie was set in the 50s and 60s when the book was written as a contemporary story, to the how the movie has expanded the audience for Flipped - there are some good stories there!

People ask me when another one of my books is going to be adapted into a movie, and my answer is that it's not right to get greedy. Flipped was turned into a feature film by the director of The Princess Bride for goodness sake. And he wanted to do the film because he read and loved the book.

Hello? He read and loved the book!

It would be bad karma to want more.

One of the fun and also unexpectedly wonderful things about the Flipped book-to-movie experience was meeting the cast of the film. The "kids" were all so nice and down to earth and patient. We had a premiere where, for two showings, they stood with guests for hours, smiling and taking individual pictures as people filed into the theater. They were such troupers!

Premier night, the thing that also struck me about Callan (Bryce) and Israel (Garrett) is that they're funny. Like, really funny. I have lots of pictures of Callan mugging for the camera. They're hilarious, but they're gonna stay in my vault. Seven years later he's not needing to see them pop up around the internet.

What I will share is that since Flipped came out, Callan's been in lots of projects, like I Am Number Four, The Great Gatsby, Blow Your Own Trumpet, and Hacker to name a few. If you want to see the full list of what he's been up to, check here.

Madeline's been busy, too, working on such projects as Mr. Popper's Penguins, The Haunting Hour, Scandal, Blink, with multiple other projects completed just this year. In all our communications, she's kind and upbeat and focused on her faith and doing good. Check out the full list of her projects here.

Stefanie Scott, who played Juli's best friend (Darla in the book, Dana in the movie) was really busy with A.N.T. Farm after Flipped and has lots of other projects completed. Very impressive!

Israel, Stepfanie, Madeline, Callan - an awesome bunch!
And Israel Broussard, (who played Bryce's best friend Garrett) has also been in a bunch of stuff - including Fear the Walking Dead - and is starring in Happy Death Day, which my son (the one who loves "funny horror films") is dying (h-hm) to see. It releases on October 13th (a Friday) and you can learn more and watch the trailer here.

For all of them, Flipped was one of their early projects, and seven years later, Callan and Madeline were both kind enough to make the time to read and blurb Wild Bird. I love what each of them had to say (see opening graphic), and it means a lot to me that the book resonated with them.

So this month brings a sense of nostalgia (how could seven years have gone by since the Flipped movie came out ?!?) and optimism for the future. Wild Bird comes out on September 5th and I can't wait. Years in the making, it's finally almost here and I'm hopeful that everyone will have reactions similar to Callan's and Madeline's.

For more information about the book, click here.

Fly, Wild Bird, fly!

Thanks for checking in - see you in the comments!

Sunday, August 6, 2017

This Is My Why

Where did you get the idea for this book? is a common question authors get. Usually, authors relate an anecdote of some sort. Or share an epiphany. Or confess to having read something in the news that sparked the basis for their story. (Florida authors seem particularly adept at this.)  

I do fumble about for adequate answers to share with people who ask, but the question I  wish they'd ask instead is Why did you write this book?

The why is so much more important.

It's actually everything.

Why did I spend years of my life thinking about, researching, plotting this story? Why did I obsess over word choice, balance, message, accessibility, theme, resolution, heart? Why did I put myself in this world, endure this character's agonies? Why? Why? Why?

For Wild Bird, the answer comes down to reflection. Reflection on how seemingly insignificant choices can set us off in a slightly wrong direction, which, over time, can land us in a place we never intended (or wanted) to go.

Reflections on the importance of friendships in shaping our direction.

Reflections on the questions we should ask ourselves when we're young. The ones that will help keep us moving toward where we dream of being. The ones that matter most.

When we're young and under the guidance of parents and teachers, we're given rules. Do not lie. Do not steal. Do not cheat. Think about the 10 Commandments -- it's simply a list of things you should not do. The rules we're given when we're young become our de facto moral compass.

But then adolescence happens and peer pressure (or curiosity or defiance or...) can lure us away from the things we've been taught not to do. Having friends, being is a powerful force, one against which rules alone cannot compete. Our moral compass finds a new true north - peer acceptance.

It has helped me, I think, to see adolescence again through the eyes of a classroom teacher. I've seen my own youthful mistakes repeated by my students. I recognize the pressures and emotions and remember the agony of being that age. 

I taught high school for 15 years, and for many of those years I also worked two nights a week at the continuation high school, helping at-risk kids get through school. These were teens whose choices had betrayed them. And beyond getting their GED, most had no clear direction. They were young souls already lost. 

In education, we focus on helping our students complete the steps necessary to move forward toward careers. It's our job. But if I were back in the classroom now, I would pause that and ask my students to answer one life-defining question:

Who do you want to be?

Not what career are you after, or what position do you want to hold, but what kind of person do you want to be? What characteristics do you want to embody?

Because everything else in their lives will spring from a thoughtful defining of that.

So the why behind Wild Bird comes from reflections on the power inherent in defining our who. If we're able to define our who when we're young - if we're able to make our decisions by that guide - attaining happiness and fulfillment has a much better chance than if we let the pressures around us push and pull us in directions we never intended to go.

Wild Bird is the story of a girl who, at fourteen, is already defensive, bitter, angry, and lost. Her parents don't understand what went wrong. How did this happen?

It happened by degrees. The compass shifted. And, unfortunately, Wren's not alone. Nobody wants to end up where she did but a lot of teens do. And I don't claim to have all the answers - not by any stretch - but maybe changing the question can help teens consciously choose their direction. Maybe it can give them the strength and conviction to stay on the path they want for themselves. 

This is my hope for Wild Bird.

This is my why.

(Wild Bird will be out on September 5th. If you'd like to read a short excerpt, there's one here.)