Interview with Sara Biren, Debut Author of The Last Thing You Said

Hello Tuesdays!

Today, I’m pleased to be joined by my fellow 2017 Debut member, Sara Biren, whose book, The Last Thing You Said, is scheduled to come out April 4,  from Abrams/Amulet Books

JR: Hi, Sara and thanks for joining us today.

SB: Thanks for having me!

JR: Before we begin, can you tell us a little bit about The Last Thing You Said and the impetus behind writing it?

SB: I started The Last Thing You Said the summer I followed the online journey of a local teen with a very aggressive form of cancer that would eventually take his life. I began to think about his friends and family, and then about the times I’ve experienced loss throughout my life. I wanted to write a book about grief, but it was a tough book to write, and it took several years. Throughout the writing and revising processes, I returned to my journals, especially from my sophomore year of high school, the year that my friend and classmate Nicole died. I realized that I was angry at the adults at school and church who’d said that it was okay to be sad, but that we needed to move on, get over it. I wanted to write a story to let people know that it’s okay to take your time.

JR: I read on your site, www.sarabiren.com that you wrote in your third grade autobiography that you wanted to be an author. Congrats on making your younger self look good! So, how many of the other things that you wrote then come to fruition?

SB: In that same autobiography, I wrote that I would attend the University of Minnesota-Duluth, and I did. I do not, however, have a lot of cats, because my husband is allergic.

JR: Spouse or pets? Tough choice. Could go either way.

JR: Can you tell us a little bit about your writing journey getting to this point? 

SB: You know that Beatles song, The Long and Winding Road? That should sum it up. I studied the craft of writing in high school and college and earned an MFA in Creative Writing in 2003. I was writing literary short stories, a handful of which were published, but was drawn to young adult fiction. In 2006, I started my first YA novel, but it wasn’t until NaNoWriMo of 2009 that I completed one. I queried that thing for two and a half years, to its last breath, while writing The Last Thing You Said. I didn’t land an agent with that first book, but found one in six weeks with The Last Thing.

 

SB: Unfortunately, that agent left the industry three months later, and I had to start the process over. That’s when I signed with Steven Chudney of The Chudney Agency, and I couldn’t be happier to have him in my corner. The Last Thing You Said was on submission for fifteen long months when Abrams – Amulet Books expressed interest, and I’ve loved working with my editor, Erica Finkel, and the staff at Amulet.

JR: What’s your writing process like?

SB: My process is not one that anyone should emulate. I’m a total pantser, but not only that, I don’t have a scheduled writing time or routine, and I don’t write in chronological order. That makes for a very messy, surgery-like revision process.

I can tell you that I usually write late into the night, whenever I can (NOT every day), sitting on my couch with a laptop, with coffee and music. I also like to fit in a few long writing days at a local coffee shop when I can (with coffee and music), and any time I need inspiration, I head to a lake. My favorite is Lake Superior, but any lake will do – and that’s pretty easy here in Minnesota.

JR: What’s your favorite book and who’s your favorite author?

SB: How can I possibly answer these questions? My all-time favorite book has been Gone with the Wind since I first read it in fifth grade. I used to read it every summer until I had kids. My favorite YA book is Anna and the French Kiss. I can’t even count how many times I’ve read it. Stephanie Perkins is one of my favorite authors, along with Jane Austen, Anne Tyler, Kate Morton, JoJo Moyes, Jessi Kirby, and Sarah Ockler.

JR: What’s your favorite movie?

SB: Another tough question! Gone with the Wind is my all-time favorite, but I have to mention That Thing You Do! – no movie makes me feel happier.

JR: Something people would be surprised to learn about you?

SB: I’m Minnesotan through and through, but I have never been a Vikings fan. My blood runs blue for the Buffalo Bills. I’ve been a fan since the mid-80s and the glory years of Jim Kelly, Andre Reed, and Thurman Thomas. It’s not always easy, but #GoBills.

(That’s a very ugly side to you, Sara, but I’ll overlook it, since you’re a guest. Go Jets!)

JR: Do you do a lot of research when you write?

SB: Absolutely. Most of my books are set in the Brainerd Lakes area of the state or on the North Shore of Lake Superior, and I occasionally need to be reminded of details of a certain place. For The Last Thing, I researched a great deal of things, from weeds in central Minnesota lakes to heart conditions that often go undetected. I also lean on real life subject matter experts when necessary.

JR: Here at the Tuesdays, a big part of our success and the purpose of this site, has been being involved in a critique group. Are you involved in one and if so, how has it helped you?

SB: Until the last couple of years, I was part of a critique group in the Twin Cities called MNYA Writers. I had to leave the group when my schedule got too busy, but I loved the monthly meetings, camaraderie, and encouragement. Two of those authors are still my critique partners, along with a couple of others outside of Minnesota. I’d love to be in a group like that again.

JR: What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve received and is there any advice you can give to writers looking to break in?

SB: The best piece of advice I received was that I should try writing YA, because I had the voice for it. This came from Terry Davis, author of Vision Quest and one of my instructors at Mankato State, where I earned my MFA. He was quite right. For writers looking to break in, keep moving forward. Do one thing every day that will keep you on the path to your goal, even if it’s just jotting down some story notes on a receipt from the gas station as you shuttle your kids from one activity to the next.

JR: What are you working on next?

SB: I’ve completed another contemporary YA novel, Cold Day in the Sun, and am working on a manuscript called If You Were Here. It’s another dual POV, this one about a rock star’s son and the girl who inspired the song that relaunched his father’s career.

(Not the actual Rock Star’s son)

JR: Is there anything that else you want to share with our readers or perhaps tell them how they can follow you on social media? 

SB: I’d love to connect on social media! Follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. And add The Last Thing You Said on Goodreads.

JR: Before we go, I always like to ask, who’s your favorite member of The Tuesdays? Is it, let’s just say, someone like me, or someone like Faran, who as everyone knows, spends weekends holding magnifying glasses to ants, just so he can hear the sizzle?

SB: Duuude, it’s Faran, because I, too, can sing all the words to Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” The Storm Front tour is still one of my top concert experiences. And, as a former Media Manager at Best Buy, I agree that Tuesday is the very best day of the week (that’s when all the new release music and movies dropped, and I got first crack at them).

JR: I guess frying ants has become socially acceptable now. Whatever. Anyway, thanks again to Sara Biren, and best of luck with The Last Thing You Said!

 

Sitting Can Kill You

Have you ever been at your desk so long that your bum feels numb and your hips are stiff when you get up? Sitting for prolonged periods is required for many jobs, but a sedentary lifestyle leads to heart disease, diabetes, cancer and of course obesity. The phrase ‘sitting is the new smoking’ really catches one’s attention. According to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta eighty percent of Americans don’t get enough exercise. Our desk jobs contribute to that considerably.

Not to worry, fitting small things into your routine can make a big difference. You can park on the far side of the parking lot. Your car will love you for protecting it from door dings. Take the stairs, two at a time if you can. It will raise your heart rate, and work your quadriceps. Walk to lunch or walk to get the mail. Do your best to walk three hours a week. That’s only half an hour a day, with one day off.

Having poor posture while sitting at your desk can lead to neck or back pain. With proper alignment, bones, muscles and ligaments are positioned to work without stress. Keep your desk chair so that you have a 90-90-90 position. Ninety degree angles at your elbows, at your hips and at your knees. Keep your lower back against the chair for alignment and support. Your computer screen should be positioned with your eye level at a level that’s one third down the screen so that you don’t stoop forward.

According to chiropractor, Dr. Sarah Vadeboncoeur, stretching your neck and shoulders during the day is important. Twenty-five percent of the population has neck pain, much of it caused by hunching over our computer screens and phones. Simple stretches can reduce tension and help prevent chronic problems. You can work your upper trapezius by stretching your ear toward your shoulder. Stretch your pectoral muscle in your chest by standing in a doorway with your arm at a right angle to your torso and elbow are at ninety degrees, then press your upper arm into the door frame. Side stretches can be done holding one arm over your head and reaching for the knee of the opposite leg.

Tim Cook, CEO of Apple sets his watch to vibrate once an hour to remind him to get up, move around and stretch every hour. Put it on your calendar for a pop-up reminder hourly. Prolonged sitting can actually shorten your psoas and hip flexor muscles creating back pain. Some people have the capability to switch their desk from sitting to standing. If you’re not one of those, the stretches below can help.

Hamstring stretch

       Quadraceps stretch

Tabletop pigeon pose

 

 

 

                                                                               Psoas Stretch

As writers we may need to sit for long periods of time, but remember to watch your posture while you work, and get up to walk as well as stretch to maintain your good health.

The First Book We Bought With Our Own Money

Joanne Butcher

Joanne: Trixie Belden and the Red Trailer Mystery was the first book I bought with my own money. I had heard from a friend the books were good. At nine years old, the back cover sold me: “Would you like to – solve mysteries? Belong to a secret club? Ride, swim, travel and go to parties with the best friends in the world?”  I still say yes to all those questions, although my secret club has changed. Now it’s The Tuesday Writers! As you can tell from the photo, I still have the book. Might be time to read it again…

Faran Fagen

Faran: The first book I bought with my own money was Garfield at Large, the first of Jim Davis’s popular comic collections, about an oversized, sarcastic, lasagna-loving cat. I was about 10 years old, and every Sunday, I couldn’t wait to pick up the overstuffed newspaper and read the latest Garfield comic strip in color. So it was with great excitement that I bought a book full of those comic strips. I saved my allowance of $2 a week for taking out the trash. I collected many of the Garfield books. My favorite was Garfield and His Nine Lives, about all the different versions of Garfield over the years. There was even a Viking Garfield.

Melody Maysonet

Melody: The first book I bought with my own money was Trixie Belden: The Secret of the Mansion. I got five dollars’ allowance every two weeks, so every two weeks (after Dad’s payday), my sisters and I got to go to K-Mart to spend our hard-earned cash. Over time, I had a pretty big collection of Trixie Belden books, but I read that first one (the first in the series) many, many times.

Cathy Castelli

Cathy: I can picture the cover. It was published by Scholastic. It was a skinny girl on a beach towel, and I’m pretty sure it was titled, Confessions of a 98 Pound Weakling. I bought it somewhere downtown La Salle, IL, but I don’t know where since there wasn’t a book store. Perhaps it was at Bowman’s Toy and Hobby Shop. It was thrilling to have made the purchase. I soon discovered buying paperbacks at garage sales for ten cents. It was awesome!

A Good Nose for Writing

Jonathan’s dog, Parker, knew Stacie was out of town on book promotion this week, so he sat in her favorite seat and thumped his tail when he liked what was read. Faran was away this week too. He was waiting for trim carpenters to install new doors at his house.

Melody is at the beginning of a new layer of revision. She had a scene with a lot of conflict that caused plenty of tension and dropped clues for a plot twist at the end. We learned about the family dynamics of the characters. Her main character expressed a lot of emotion throughout the chapter. Jonathon pointed out there was a bit too much exposition mixed in with all those thoughts and feelings.

Cathy is also working on the revision of the beginning of her novel. She’s working hard to perfect it, so she can submit to a contest. She took last week’s critique and really put it to task, making significant changes to her opening scene. Cathy raised up her main character, showing her bravery and her upcoming challenges, making readers want to learn more.

I read third. I’ve been working on page one a lot, trying to change the tone at the start of my novel.  The Tuesdays liked the new layer of change, but felt like it should have a smother integration with everything that was unchanged. I’ve been trying to fit in changes here and there, but I have a feeling I need to murder more of my darlings and do an entire rewrite of my first chapter.

Joanathan’s narcissistic character had us all laughing again. There was a lot of nostril flaring in Jonathan’s chapter. His character thought it was a great attribute for girls. Parker was particularly impressed with how it helped him imagine various scents in each scene.

Can’t wait to see what next Tuesday brings.

Commas Made Easy, Part 1

Let’s talk about commas. Yeah, I know they’re not glamorous, but they’re important. So if you’re one of those people who sort of guesses where to put them, here’s a simple rule.

If you’re connecting two independent clauses with a conjunction, use a comma before the conjunction. 

Example: I went to the store, and I bought some milk. 

By the way, an independent clause has a subject and a verb and can stand alone as a sentence. “The dog ate my homework” is an independent clause.

And if you forgot what a conjunction is, here’s an easy way to remember them. Call them FANBOYS.

For

And

Nor

But

Or

Yet

So

Here’s another example: I didn’t do the homework, but I still managed to get a good grade.

Notice the conjunction (but). Notice that both sides of the sentence are independent clauses—that is, they each have a subject and verb and could stand alone as a sentence. Therefore, you need the comma before the conjunction.

In this sentence, which is very similar to the above, you don’t need the comma:

I didn’t do the homework but still managed to get a good grade.

You don’t need a comma because the second half of the sentence (still managed to get a good grade) can’t stand alone as a sentence.

Easy, right? So now you know a basic comma rule.

This message was brought to you by a former English teacher.

Media Monday

Welcome to Tracy Clark, an author I met while I was attending the Nevada Mentor Program several years ago.
Hi Tracy! www.tuesdaywriters.com

Tracy is the author of The Light Key Trilogy, Mirage, and Chalk Houses. Remember the SCBWI Work in Progress Grant I wrote about in my last post? Well Tracy won that in 2009. Cool, right?

What’s the hardest part about writing for you?

The hardest part of writing for me comes down to “choice.” At every step of the process you must make choices that can change the outcome of story in a profound way. To start with, you must choose what concept excites you enough to tackle for the length of time it takes to write a book. There are the nuts and bolts decisions like whose POV to use or what tense the book will be in and of course there are a zillion story choices. Like life, you don’t always know which one will best serve the characters. (Hint: it’s usually the tougher road!) There have been many times I’ve felt paralyzed by the different paths my story can take and at some point, you just have to pick one and go for it!

I get it, Tracy. I sometimes have to force myself to just type it.

When did you first want to write?

The first inklings of desire to write came around 8th grade when I wrote an assignment for school that made someone cry. There was a feeling of power in being able to make someone feel strong emotions with what I’d written. In my early twenties, I started keeping a journal and began writing some poetry but it wasn’t until my late twenties that I tried in earnest to write a book. Writing came in fits and starts with raising children and when they were both in school full-time, that’s when I really buckled down and took my writing seriously.

Of all your book, which is your favorite?

Every book I write teaches me something new about my craft and about myself. My Light Key Trilogy has themes that are very important to me about energy between people and balance in our energies and hence, in the world. I loved writing that series! But I have to say that the most fun I had writing was MIRAGE. www.tuesdaywriters.comWhen I began that book, I was at a place where I wasn’t sure I’d ever sell a book. There’s freedom in writing just for yourself, and I think that freedom generated some of my best work. That book sold in two weeks, much faster than any other project.

Which I think goes back to your Light Key Trilogy – about exchanges of energy. Sometimes you don’t have to push to sell. Just let it happen.

We’re a critique group, so we’d love to know your experience with them.

 Critique groups and crit partners are so invaluable to craft! My Nevada SCBWI chapter was my first introduction to a critique group and I learned as much from listening to others give critiques as I did giving and getting them. Funnily, I don’t think I’m very good at giving critiques (though I’ve been assured otherwise.) I tend to ask a lot of character motivation type questions and to read for “feelings” and really appreciate when a crit partner can tell me places in my work where they were bored, confused, excited, etc. It’s really important to have a supportive group but also one that pushes you. Equally important is to not be too defensive about your own work. It’s a balance of being open to the opinions of others but also knowing when to disregard some opinions that just don’t feel right or mesh with your vision of the story. I recall Holly Black saying once that she always makes sure have at least one writer whom she feels is vastly better than her. Makes her work harder to improve!

From meeting you in Nevada and following you on Facebook, I know that you are passionate about many things including writing. How do you see yourself and your writing as a way to make the world a better place?

Yes, anyone who follows me knows that I’m a mixed bag of passions! 🙂 Art has always been an avenue for the free expression of ideas, whether those ideas be of love, or dragons, or politics. I think that storytelling in particular, is a way to flesh out themes without bashing people over the head with them and I find that “theme” is something that must be present in a story concept or I have no interest in writing it. Theme gives me a touchstone to come back to again and again so I don’t get lost on tangents in my story or so that it doesn’t feel pointless. Stories have such power: to make people feel less alone, to encourage, to spark minds, or to offer a much needed escape. If we write with the intention of making the world a better place, then that intention will inform our work and come through in our stories. It’s probably why I write for teens, as the kids are our future!

What are you working on…that you can tell us about?

This has been an odd writing year for me. I’ve got a book out on submission that’s a historical YA with a paranormal aspect to it. After that book, I found myself in need of a break, a fallow time. With the series and the sale of my thriller, MIRAGE, followed by writing the above historical, I’d worked really hard for about three years. Some aspects of the business had me feeling less than positive and so I tried to put less press on myself to “produce” (this notion that you must have a book a year is crazy-making to creativity!) and just played. I ventured out of YA and began an adult romance series, and I also ventured into self publishing for the first time with my latest release, CHALK HOUSES. www.tuesdaywriters.comIt’s YA contemporary that won the SCBWI Work in Progress Grant a few years back and had a near-miss sale this winter. I decided to go for it and that’s been a whole other learning curve. Another unexpected turn is that I began writing my first nonfiction project! So currently, I’m juggling the nonfiction, the adult romance, and playing with a YA idea.

That’s all very exciting! You can find Tracy on her website http://www.tracyclark.org/ If you haven’t read any of Tracy’s books, what are you waiting for?

Touchy-feely Free Write Friday

This week has me waxing super nostalgic. So bear with me.

I was a reader well before I became a writer. True story.

I remember the first book I read to myself was Where The Wild Things Are. I was amazed by the illustrations, the lyrical prose, the wild story. Of course young-me couldn’t verbalize those emotions exactly that way, but I swear, I still remember the feeling of awe at having discovered that book. And each time I re-read it, I feel exactly the same. It’s a beautiful thing.

As an author you sometimes forget that feeling. Sometimes your reading becomes more about learning craft and less about experiencing that sense of profound amazement that only a really good book can deliver. Words are powerful stuff. So, I’ve made a commitment to my first real boyfriend, Reading. I’ve promised him that I will remember how he has always made me feel.

Last week was my 25th wedding anniversary with JKR. With all of the things going on in our lives we couldn’t exactly go away on a second honeymoon, so we did the next best thing. We did a stay-cation in a nearby beach town, Vero Beach. We picked Vero because of the Vero Beach Book Center, which is an independent bookstore that I love as well as the beautiful beaches.

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As I was winding my way through the choices at Vero Beach Book Center, I felt like a little kid again, in the library. Looking at the book covers, being drawn in to certain ones, put off by others. Reading the back copy and then, if interested enough in the story, reading the first lines. That’s the way I know if the book is for me. It’s a series of tests. Like the ones JKR passed for me (buying me a full set of stuffed Wild Things because that was his first favorite book also!). Like the ones I passed for him (being a huuuuge football fan!).

JKR and I went to the bookstore and picked out books, a new card game (Quiddler which he kept calling Quidditch!), and a toy dinosaur for him (don’t ask). We walked on the beach. We ate lunch overlooking the beach. We got coffee in a really cool coffee house. I love JKR because he gets the real me. The one who wants to stroll for hours in book stores looking for the next great read. The one who wants the sound and smell of the ocean and a strong cup of coffee. The one who at times wants to ignore him totally and immerse myself fully in whatever book world I happen to enter. After 25 years of marriage and 3 more years of dating, he is still the one I want to spend time with more than anyone else in the world. JKR is called by music. I’m called by words. So we get each other on a level not everyone gets to experience. We are artists. Both of us. Rivals sometimes. We are Quiddler and Scrabble players and Netflix bingers. We are beach walkers. Bike riders. And after all of this book stuff, the reading and now also the writing, it’s nice to have him to come home to. My own version of The Homecoming.  🙂

So, my faithful Tuesday Readers, as we writers are authoring so hard, it’s good to be reminded of what stories really mean to us. Happily ever after looks different for everyone, for sure, but for me it looks like sitting on the beach, resisting the urge to ignore JKR and binge read, knowing the book will still be there waiting for me. Dependable, exciting, and intoxicating, all at once. Just like he is. Word.

Our Favorite Movies of 2016

Jonathan: There were quite a few movies I loved in 2016, but I think my favorite one was Captain America: Civil War. I love just about all the Marvel Super-Hero movies, and this one was no exception. It had so many heroes in it and each one got their due onscreen. It had humor, action and pathos. But, the best thing of all about it was the introduction of Spider-Man into the Marvel universe. Now, that is a movie I can’t wait for!

Melody Maysonet

Melody: I’m sorry to jump on the bandwagon here, but my favorite movie of 2016 was Moonlight. It grabbed me from the opening scene and didn’t let go. I love the quiet beauty of the film, juxtoposed with the dissonance of growing up in such chaos. I also love how forgiveness is a subtle theme. Forgiveness and beauty. My kind of film.

Cathy Castelli

Cathy: I’m a trekkie from way back. My favorite movie of 2016 was Star Trek Beyond.  I like how the series parallels the originals.

Faran Fagen

Faran: I only saw two movies that came out in 2016—Sing and Moana. (Welcome to my life.) I have to say Moana crushed it over Sing. The storyline was beautiful and the ocean images were amazing. We bought the soundtrack for my kids, and even though I’ve heard them over and over, there are a few songs I actually like. Every few years an amazing kids’ movie comes out that stands the test of time and this is one of them. You’ll be happy if you see Moana over Sing. You might even thank me, and I’ll answer, “What can I say? Except you’re welcome.”

Joanne Butcher

Joanne: Jackie is the only movie I saw that was launched in 2016. If I get around to seeing some of the others, it may not be my ultimate favorite. Jackie is about the life of Jackie Kennedy after the 1963 assassination of her husband, the president.  I watched it because I have always admired Jackie. I think she had class and a wonderful sense of style. I’d love to see Moonlight, La La Land, and the OJ documentary, especially since I know someone who was close to OJ and Nicole.

Wrap It Up Wednesday: Try and Try Again

Here’s what I learned in critique group this week–something I already knew, but it’s good to be reminded. Each of us takes turn reading aloud and I kicked off by reading my totally rewritten chapter two. Coming out of my mouth, it didn’t sound as good as when I’d put on the finishing touches last week—and the Tuesdays let me know it still needed work. Not a ton, but I wanted it to come off better, especially after I got such high praise last week from my newly revised chapter one.

Stacie read next—a brilliant chapter—and I couldn’t help comparing (a bad habit, I know). But then, after we all congratulated Stacie on how good her chapter was, she said something like, “That’s what happens after the twenty-fifth revision.” And I reminded myself that the chapter I read was a first draft—so, duh, of course it needed work. I also reminded myself that the chapter I read last week—the one that got so much praise—was a fifth or sixth draft. So yeah, I need to cut myself some slack and remember that revisions—multiple, multiple revisions—are part of the process, even for the best writers.

Unless you’re Jonathan. His first drafts are amazing.

Taking a Break

I recently took a break from writing.

www.tuesdaywriters.comI know – shocker!

For four entire days.

It wasn’t planned. I wasn’t on a fabulous vacation. I wasn’t just kicking back and relaxing.

I was sick. Bones chilled, fever-induced sick. My throat felt like someone was holding me around the neck, and I was sure antibiotics was the only hope.

The flu test was negative, but I was told 40% of the tests are a false-negative. (Perhaps they need a different test?) I was told not to go to work until Monday, so beginning Wednesday I watched Netflix. I had one and a half seasons of the Great British Bake-Off to watch, discovered something called the Kindness Diaries, and downloaded a new app on my phone called Ballz. www.tuesdaywriters.com

See, I pretty much write every day, and if I don’t, I feel incredibly guilty about it. Even if I’m on a trip, I still think writing all the time. For four days, I didn’t think about it. I allowed myself to simply rest.

I enjoyed doing nothing for a while, until this post popped up on my Facebook feed. www.tuesdaywriters.com

That got my blood pumping again. If you’re writing for kids, and you aren’t yet published, then you should think about entering. You can enter any of these categories:

-Picture Book Text

-Chapter Books/Early Readers

-Middle Grade

-Young Adult Fiction

-Nonfiction (Anna Cross Giblin Nonfiction Award)

-Multicultural Fiction or Nonfiction

Go here for more information on how to enter: http://www.scbwi.org/awards/grants/work-in-progress-grants/

AND>>>If you’re like me and over fifty, there’s an additional award you can win – http://www.scbwi.org/awards/grants/work-in-progress-grants/karen-and-philip-cushman-late-bloomer-award/

It’s nice to kick back everyone once in a while, but I’m excited about getting back to my books.