BOXED SET -- A novel by Bernie Kohn & Gina M. Smith

An unemployed Chicago sports writer quickly finds himself broke and homeless, but he uses his gift with words and some inspiration from Beat Generation author Jack Kerouac to turn his life around, help his fellow homeless and to get the girl, a perky tech at the local plasma clinic who thinks a boob job will solve everything.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Gift Book & Reading Recommendations from Author Jen Malone

As a huge fan of author/editor Jen Malone, I'd likely buy an igloo from her if I were an Eskimo. What does that mean? Simply: I trust her taste. So much so that I am sharing her holiday book-gifting recommendations here. It's never too late for a good book!
You can contact Jen at her website here, where you can also request a signed bookplate for her book, At Your Service. Follow the links on her site to take you to her editing services website or her Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest pages. (Remember-good taste!)

Here's what Jen has to say:


Perfect For: Kids ages 2-6, anyone who loves a good rhyme and cuddly friends

Why: Every December my family counts down to Christmas by opening one holiday book a night (these stories only come out once a year so they're "like new" each time! My kids are getting a little old for some of them, but they don't care one bit and we all snuggle on the couch to read!) This book will be hanging out under our tree this year because the rhyming is a sheer joy to read aloud and the premise (a boy's monster needs a tree for the holidays, but chaos ensues) is giggle-inducing.


Perfect For: Kids ages 7-11, anyone who loves funny and sweet, ice hockey, or cats in bathtubs 

Why: I read this one aloud to my twins' class this spring and it went over HUGE! There are tons of laugh-out-loud scenarios in this sweet story that is reminiscent of Beverly Cleary or The Penderwicks, but with a Modern Family sensibility (the family it follows through a school year is made up of four adopted boys and their two dads). I love the way it portrays an untraditional family in such a traditional setting- it's very non-preachy but includes a lovely lesson on what it means to be a family today.

Perfect For: Kids ages 7-11, anyone with an annoying sibling

Why: My twin boys complain a lot about how annoying their little sister can be, but at least they've never woken up with plastic flowers superglued to their hair! Not so for Masha, who has the injustice of having a certifiable genius (she would say "evil genius") as a little sister. This is a very sweet story (pun 
intended) about sibling rivalry that includes a ton of outrageous and funny scenarios.                     


Perfect For: Kids ages 9-13, anyone who loves NYC, mysteries, or art

Why: Marcia Wells and I both participated on a Books of Wonder panel called "Only in New York" this fall, which highlighted books that were love stories to the Big Apple. This book is definitely that and her hero, Eddie, is a great little detective. Eddie's drawing skills land him a job helping the police scout out a potential museum heist and I adored the sketches throughout the book. Those, plus the fast pacing, make this one great for reluctant readers!


Perfect For: Kids ages 9-13, anyone who loves presidential history and/or girl power

 This is one of my top picks for the year. It follows a First Daughter who is not so thrilled about how her mom's new job as President is cramping her social life. When Audrey uncovers Alice Roosevelt's diary in her bedroom floorboards she discovers she's not the first rebellious daughter to occupy the White House Residence. Alice's diary entries were absolutely my favorite part of this book- her voice jumps off the page and it's a perfect mix of history meets modern! 


Perfect For: Teens ages 12 and up, anyone who loves travel, reality TV, or has a sister. 

Why: My 2016 YA is all about a younger sister doing something crazy for her older sister, so I'd be pre-disposed to love this book even if I didn't already love its author even more. But I promise this story doesn't require any bias to adore- it's a hilarious trip around the world as two sisters compete in an Amazing Race-style reality contest, hellbent on getting revenge on the cheating ex-boyfriend (who happens to be on an opposing team) of the older sister. This is So. Much. Fun!


Perfect For: Kids ages 12 and up, anyone who loves superhero movies and plenty to action

 We listened to this on audiobook as we drove from Boston to Buffalo this summer and, even after nine cramped hours, my kids didn't want to get out of the car when we got there! We kept trying to find a place to pause, but every chapter ended on a cliffhanger. This one is Oceans Eleven meets The X-Men and is full of characters with supercool abilities and fast-paced action


Perfect For: Kids ages 12 and up, anyone who loves teen romance from the hottest YA authors. 

 This is what I plan to recommend to anyone who isn't sure which books their gift recipients have already read. This one is brand new and includes twelve stories from bestselling YA authors (Rainbow Rowell, Stephanie Perkins, Gayle Forman...), so there's something for everyone! Plus holiday romance- what could be better? Bookplates will be signed by the adorable Myra McEntire, who is credited with helping inspire the book (and contributes a fantastic story). 


One for the Adults!

 While I can attest from a few short meetings that Rainbow Rowell is one lovely human being, we're not yet on bestie terms (don't worry; it's on my bucket list).  Therefore, I can't offer signed bookplates for this one, BUT this book is a Top Five of 2014 for me and I couldn't resist the chance to share it. While the premise is a bit "rom-com" (a woman having marital problems retreats to her childhood home where she finds a telephone that lets her speak with her husband pre-wedding, pre-kids) it packs a huge emotional punch that had me shedding tears. 

Another for Adults!

 Technically a young adult novel, I think this would appeal equally- if not more- to adults. The writing is BRILLIANT. it left me sweaty, and scrubbed-clean, and very, very humbled. Jandy Nelson is a genius. That's really all I can say about this one. Sadly I can't offer signed bookplates for this either, but hopefully the awesome cover will make up for that. 


Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Vestal Wins Major Literary Prize

I could claim to have know him when. But the glory belongs only to author Shawn Vestal. I simply had the good fortune to talk with the recipient of the PEN/Robert W. Bingham literary prize a couple weeks before he was presented the award this fall in New York City.

The $25,000 award, the richest from the PEN American Center, is presented for an outstanding work of debut fiction. Vestal was brought to the podium by acclaimed author Louise Erdrich as he sat among other notable novelists and playwrights. An account of his win and subsequent discussion of the literary climate in Spokane, WA where he is a columnist is related in his home newspaper, The Spokesman-Review.

Vestal's short stories are collected in Godforsaken Idaho. In The Spokesman-Review piece, Gregory Spatz and Sam Ligon of Eastern Washington University's MFA program discuss Vestal's story collection which was written as his master's thesis. They also talk about the wealth of writing talent in Washington state and specifically, Spokane, home to another acclaimed author and former Spokesman-Review journalist, Jess Walter, one of Vestal's pals. They are but two on a long list of writing talent in or from that region of the great Northwest. Check out the Spokesman-Review article for much more name-dropping.

Vestal joins an amazing list of writers. I'm thrilled and lucky that a fellow journalist, Gary Graham, Editor-In-Chief at Spokane and formerly state editor at the Fort Wayne (IN) News-Sentinel links us all together. Graham edited me a hundred years ago when I was a stringer and newly-turned out reporter and journalism grad from Ball State University in Muncie, IN. Today, he edits Vestal in Spokane at the same paper where Walter once worked and where his brother, Ralph Walter, still does. A little drinking water from Spokane, anyone?

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Meeting A Great One, King of Roadkill Tales

As a long-time reader and fan of Carl Hiaasen, it was great to finally meet him recently at a book-signing in Bethesda, MD. Hiaasen addressed some 250 fans, many of them kids, at the Bethesda Public Library Oct,. 7.

Like his other adult fans, I've been reading Hiaasen since way back in the Double Whammy days. That one's a personal fave, along with Tourist Season, Skin Tight, Stormy Weather and Lucky You. I was reminded about Strip Tease and its movie during his verrrry dry talk. And I never even knew he was a co-writer of the Michael J. Fox movie Doc Hollywood.

What I do know, which was reinforced this night, is that Hiaasen has a whole new generation of fans coming up, and they're starting early, from the look of things, in about sixth grade. I introduced my own son, now 23, to Hiaasen when Hoot came out. Until this week I didn't even know Hoot was made into a movie, or that it is based on actual events from Hiassen's boyhood. More importantly for this quasi-Parrothead, I didn't know Jimmy Buffett figures prominently in Flush, the book, the movie, the music. Jimmy Buffett as a science teacher? Where have I have been?!

Determined to catch up quickly, I ordered Hiaasen's latest kid's book (Middle Grade to Young Adult) Skink No Surrender.  Hiaasen's signing landed on the calendar before I had the chance to read it. The eager, young faces in the audience Tuesday with their sincere questions left no doubt this will be great. How could it not be -- Hiaasen brings back his wacked-out renegade roadkill-eating runaway former Florida governor, now known famously, and only, as Skink. Gotta love it. Hiaasen's advice to a budding junior author in the group who earnestly asked for writing advice? "Don't write about roadkill," he deadpanned.

Hiaasen shared more dry stories from his writing life, including the inspiration for other characters and stories, how he got into children's books, and his sometimes nutty fan following. His discipline to write every day, good or bad, want to or not, comes from his experience as a daily newspaper journalist, he said. Hiassen remains equally well-known for his columns in the Miami Herald.

And stories involving roadkill.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

A Shout-Out to Editor- Author Jen Malone!

When I first joined Twitter, one of the people I met was author Jen Malone. Her author website drew me in. Then I read her bio and found there was a long version and a short version-- an official bio and a not-so-official bio. 

Jen's entire bio is enchanting. Here's an example: "I met my husband on the highway. Literally. He passed my car and I made a face at him (I was with my BFF and we sometimes- fine, often- did silly stuff like make faces at total strangers). Then HE made a face back at me the next time we passed, which was both nerdy and cool. I happen to like nerdy and cool. So I wrote my BFF's cell phone number (because this was the Dark Ages and I didn't own a cell phone yet) on a piece of paper and held it up to the window. He called. We married. There was some dating in between."

This person was already Double-AA-OK in my book!

Then in the run-up to #PitchWars on Twitter, Jen graciously offered free critiques for query letters.  I sent her the query letter for the book I am now writing. While free is always good, as starving artists will agree, what struck me about Jen's offer was not the price but the spirit in which it was offered.

The comments she offered on that query letter were fact-based, on the skill of writing, rather than personal-opinion based. She kept her suggestions upbeat and encouraging while still noting what could and should be fixed. She was professional, delivering much-needed advice and support at the same time. 

I've paid much more for advice that was delivered in a snarky, personal-opinion-based manner and was much more critical than constructive. I say, bring on all the criticism you can to help me make the work better, as long as it is constructive.

Given Jen's style, it is no surprise I gravitated to her editing "un-blog," as she calls it. There, she posts excerpts from posts she has contributed to other writing blogs, and it is where she houses her editing services. I'm excited to say Jen will be taking her red pen to Boxed Set's first 50 pages and its query letter. I'm excited because I know her comments and constructive criticism can only serve to make the manuscript tighter and stronger and the query letter more compelling. 

I'm thrilled to be meeting Jen this Friday at the 2014 Baltimore Book Festival, in her hometown. Jen will be speaking 12-1 Friday Sept. 26 at the Enoch-Pratt Library's children's stage and signing her book, At Your Service afterwards. This may be her first book, which recently launched at the end of August 2014, but the amazing Jen has at least, count 'em, four more books on contract and coming out in the next couple of years. As if her previous life as a publicist for Miramax Films and 20th Century Fox was not exciting enough! 

Jen writes for 'tweens and teens--Middle Grade (MG) and Young Adult (YA) fiction. I just finished At Your Service, and although I exceed the target audience age range for MG by just a little bit, I was enthralled by this sweet story. The first three words of the book are: Oh. Holy. Yikes. I was a goner. The cover is just perfect also. No one is too old to enjoy this book. Judge for yourself. The blurb which follows is from Jen's site. The picture is of my copy, which I will be getting signed Friday for a special 'tween I know. I'm looking forward to getting to know Jen and working with her.

"Chloe Turner has pretty much the BEST life. She gets to live in the super fancy Hotel St. Michele, New York City is her home town and her dad Mitchell Turner, concierge extraordinaire, is teaching her all the secrets of the business so she can follow in his footsteps. After helping him out with a particularly difficult kid client, Chloe is appointed the official junior concierge tending to the hotel’s smallest, though sometimes most demanding, guests.

Her new position comes with tons of perks like cupcake parties, backstage passes to concerts, and even private fittings with the hippest clothing designers. But Chloe hasn’t faced her toughest challenge yet. When three young royals, (including a real-life PRINCE!) come to stay, Chloe’s determined to prove once and for all just how good she is at her job. But the trip is a disaster, especially when the youngest disappears. Now it’s up to Chloe to save the day. Can she find the missing princess before it becomes international news?"


Wednesday, September 10, 2014

On Faith

I had an opportunity to talk with author Shawn Vestal, a columnist for the Spokesman-Review in Spokane. Vestal's short story collection Godforsaken Idaho was shortlisted for The Story Prize in 2014. It was longlisted for the PEN/​Robert W. Bingham award, and the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing.

His prose is magnificent; a joy to read. Exciting. The first story in the collection, "The First Several Hundred Years Following My Death," opens the book with much more than a bang. I kept re-reading passages for their beauty and new-ness. I dog-eared pages I couldn't wait to share. 

As fellow Spokane author Jess Walter says on the back cover of Vestal's book, "Wickedly funny and surprisingly profound, these nine stories of prophets and parents, of doppelgangers and pocket dogs, form a thrilling introduction to one of the wryest, most inventive new voices in fiction."


Our conversation was not intended as an interview for this blog, nor to talk about his book, although it arrived in the mail the very afternoon we spoke. Instead, Vestal was kind enough to share his story of querying for an agent (and another agent) with me. Although his genre differs and his agent search was a short one (both times), the ultimate take-away I heard is this: keep the faith in your own project, and don't let too much outside noise erode that. 

We also discussed the importance of an MFA for a serious writer. Vestal believes it was a great fit for his writing growth and career.

Lastly, after a day and last few weeks when I've been consumed with writing critiques, challenges, contests such as #PitchWars, #PitMad, and Chum Bucket (from 'the' Query Shark, Janet Reid), and considering which in-person writers' groups to attend via MeetUp, it was quite nice to stop and just listen. My visit with Vestal was calming yet exciting, re-affirming and inspiring.

Reading his collection later in the day was perfect timing; exciting, re-affirming and inspiring. Calming, it was not. In a good way.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Going the distance

There were times when I thought Boxed Set might never be finished. More accurately, there was a period when I didn't know when it would be finished. I think the end was always more or less in mind, but the middle was stuck for quite some time. Now that it has been finished for awhile, left at room temperature and seriously edited, I wonder when the next book will be finished.

Instead of worrying when, if or how Boxed Set will be published, because I believe that it will, that it must be one way or another, I spend more time thinking about going the distance again in a second book. I am about 20,000 words in, and at this point 60-80,000 words seem a lofty goal.

As for Boxed Set, we hope to publish traditionally, but I know as a last resort it could be self-published. The digital age has made that much more sophisticated, attainable and easy to move right onto selling platforms. Still, for two journalists, traditional publishing has much more significance for us. 

So query we will, and meanwhile, I write. Different genre, different style. Must. Keep. Writing. That's what every author advises.

As for what it takes to finish a novel, Amanda Patterson says on her blog, Writers Write, that the five necessary characteristics are self-belief, the ability to learn and grow, the ability to pay attention, perseverance and obsession.

Since I've got perseverance and obsession pretty well covered, I need to remind myself what she says about self-belief. "Too much self-belief can make you blind to your shortcomings. You can become convinced that your way is the only way. Authors who want to publish know they are creating a product. If you’re writing for an audience, you know that you have to consider what that audience wants. This could mean taking a writing class, doing your own research, or reading books on how to write. If you want to become an artist, you take art classes. If you want to learn how to play a musical instrument, you take music lessons. Why would you believe becoming a writer is any different? Being arrogant about your abilities could lead to many wasted years."

Patterson's thoughts on the ability to pay attention are interesting also. "Writers are readers first. Reading is your first step in learning how to pay attention. Published writers read a lot. Writers are also observers of human nature and human behavior. The writers who succeed are curious as to why people, including themselves, do the things they do. They want to know what gives people pleasure and pain. They see patterns in people’s lives. They listen to their words and see if their actions follow what they say. They create characters who are real. If you want to create a memorable book, watch and listen. Most of your material is closer than you could ever imagine."

But my favorite thought from her article is really about obsession. It makes me feel good to be obsessed with our book. "It is easy enough to write a bad book, but authors who make a living out of writing spend an extraordinary amount of time and effort to get things right. You should care about the final product. This is when being obsessive is a good thing. Every rewrite, every edit, and every stage of your book’s life should be important to you. No mistake, no matter how insignificant, should escape your notice."

The above tells me I am right on track to go the distance, and I'm loving every step of the process.