How to Quit

 

A while back, I read a little book—very short, maybe 80 pages—by Seth Godin called The Dip. This is about the long, hard slog to success that comes between beginner’s luck and real success. He talks about how successful people often have to be very strategic about what they choose to pursue and what they let go.

When I started as a professional writer, my husband predicted that I would have to come up with five good, well-developed proposals before I sold one. I have no idea where he got that number. I think he made it up; he’s a businessman, and he was just giving me a basic business number—only 20% of your stuff is going to be successful. So I developed five fully fleshed out proposals, including sample chapters. I even wrote a full manuscript for one of the ideas. And guess what? I sold number five. What happened to the rest? They’re stashed somewhere on my computer. I don’t think they’re coming out of that file. I quit on them, but that’s okay. As I always tell my friends, “I’ve got a lot of ideas, and not all of them are winners.” The truth is, I didn’t want to spend a year developing each one of them, and it’s good I ditched them early. I didn’t love them enough. The only one I really loved is the one that sold, which became Sixth-Grade Glommers, Norks, and Me. There’s another that’s sort of “the one that got away.” I might try to get back together with that one, someday. When we’re both ready.

Another thing I’ve had to quit is a bunch of extra-curriculars. For example, I love volunteering. Lately, my husband has been suggesting that we should go to our daughter’s school PTO meeting. I keep telling him no way, because I know what will happen. I’ll raise my hand and volunteer to run some giant fundraiser. Seriously, I can’t help myself. Everything sounds like fun to me, and I always like helping out, so I simply can’t be trusted at a single meeting, because the time for any new projects I take on will have to come out of time that I could be writing, or with my family. I have limited time, and I like to use the surplus for Zumba.

Here is the secret: It’s okay to quit. Even Seth Godin thinks it’s okay to quit. You just have to quit the right way. You can’t quit when the going gets tough, or when you’re frustrated.  You must decide IN ADVANCE and UNDER WHAT CIRCUMSTANCES YOU WILL QUIT. Don’t make the decision to quit in a moment of pain, like when you’re at page 100 of your work-in-progress and you’re starting to doubt the whole thing.

I have a friend who, at the start of a project, writes herself a letter to be opened during her Dip. The letter says, basically, “This novel is a good idea. You have the talent to write it. Keep at it; don’t give up.” It talks about all the reasons that she needs to write the story. The moment she’s hit with the desire to chuck the whole manuscript, she dives into that letter, and it helps her get back on track.

This is not the same as giving up on an idea that simply isn’t ever going to work. As I said earlier, I’ve abandoned a lot of ideas. Early and often, that’s my motto. Not everything deserves to be a book, and not everything that does deserve to be a book is something that I want to write. You must quit in order to truly commit. I had to let go of my mediocre ideas to commit to the good one. There is a difference between quitting one thing so that you can focus on another, and simply giving up on a dream.

Don’t give up on a dream. So go write yourself a letter. Tell yourself what you want to commit to. Then see what you need to quit in order to make it happen.

 


I Like Big Books

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One of my odd little hobbies is reading books on the craft of writing. I love them. I don’t read them looking for answers, I just read them because I like to think about reading and writing. It’s like “talking shop” with fellow authors. Oh, is that how she does it? I’ll think as I read along. Interesting! 

I like to get up early, ideally 5 am. Then I can sip tea and read while the house is quiet and dark. Lately, I have been reading The Writer’s Portable Mentor. Priscilla Long spends a lot of space writing about words, the value and the fun of them. As Mark Twain famously said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.” People don’t generally think of humor writers as people who are careful with language, but believe me when I tell you that the difference between a laugh and the sound of crickets often hangs on a single word.

Anyway, Ms. Long suggested that I get a dictionary, and I was delighted by the idea. The Writer’s Portable Mentor recommends the 1934 Second Edition of Merriam-Webster. “The sensible, cost-conscious, and ever so reasonable editors of the Third Edition dumped out 100,000 words,” Ms. Long notes. Hah! Well, I don’t want that! I am NOT reasonable, and therefore, nothing but the Second Edition would do! I went online and ordered it right away. The online images showed a dictionary that seemed to be in good shape. It was pretty expensive, but I justified it this way: I’m a writer! I need it! I’m a grown up! I want it! Gimme!!!!

When my book arrived, I wondered two things: 1) why is this box so large? and 2) why is this box so heavy?

Uh, the answer is: BECAUSE THIS BOOK IS HUUUUUGE.

It’s huge and it smells nice, like an old book, which is appropriate. I *love* it. My husband teases me, but this thing is incredible. I love paging through dictionaries and thesauruses. It’s much better than doing an online search. Online searches are fast, but they are no good for aimless wandering. There’s a word for someone who walks about, idly noticing things: flaneur. With my mega-dictionary, I am a Word Flaneur. I am picking up words here and there and putting them in my pocket. Ebulition, frangible, agathodaimon, mullock. I’m finding out new definitions of familiar words I thought I knew, like genius. And there are helpful, beautiful illustrations throughout. Like this one, of poisonous plants:

 

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Isn’t that FUN? You never know when you’ll need this information!

I’m a book person, and I guess I’ll always be one. Oh, don’t get me wrong. I love my kindle. But, in some ways, a paper book is even more interactive than an electronic one. Mine not only has a good smell and encourages me to find new words, it also builds some serious upper body strength.

That’s something you never get from a kindle.


Heroes

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Years ago, when I was a young associate editor, I went to the national SCBWI conference in Los Angeles. I wore my favorite outfit: A black skirt, a top with a bunch of pictures of vegetables on it (dishtowel chic), and a bubble watch filled with water and sparkles (like a snow globe) that I had purchased at a toy store. (I’ve always had a “unique” sense of style.) At the conference, I met a well-known author who was charming and funny, and when he saw my watch, he said, “Oh, that’s so great! We have to show Paula!”

“Paula” was Paula Danziger, author The Cat Ate My Gymsuit, The Pistachio Prescription, and many other of my favorite novels from adolescence. Her books had a permanent place in my heart; I badly wanted to meet her, but I felt shy. Too shy. For the remainder of the conference, I carefully avoided both her and the author who had offered to introduce us, escaping before I could meet her. In the back of my mind was the thought that I would meet Paula another time. Maybe when I was more influential. When I was “somebody.”

But Paula died tragically and unexpectedly at the age of 59. I never met her. I never had the opportunity to tell her how much her books meant to me, or to simply enjoy being in her presence. For years, I have regretted missing my chance. But that missed opportunity taught me something, and so, this past July, when Vermont College of Fine Arts hosted an auction and put “Lunch with Katherine Paterson” on the docket, my friend Heather Demetrios and I jumped to bid on it. Heather is a fellow writer, and we both felt too shy to chat with the author of The Great Gilly Hopkins, Bridge to Terabithia, and Jacob Have I Loved by ourselves. Between the two of us, though, we felt we could manage to prop up our end of lunch and conversation an icon.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of sitting down to sushi with Katherine and Heather. We chatted about life, writing, family, life abroad, the publishing industry, art, and poetry. We talked for two hours, and only got up when our cars were about to be towed. Katherine was charming and funny, honest and generous. To say that she was down-to-earth would be an understatement. I know I will always treasure that meeting.

It turns out that waiting around to be “somebody” was a terrible decision. I always was was somebody. And now I’m somebody who had a terrific lunch with a really fascinating person.

Lucky me.


Up For It: The 777 Challenge

 

Well, well, well. Another challenge is upon us, is it? This time, it’s personal.

Well, actually, it’s kinda professional. My good friend Heather Demetrios threw down the 777 Challenge, which is especially for writers. It’s a dare to post the first full seven lines of a current work in progress, on page seven, seven lines down. I don’t often accept dares, because I am lazy. However, as this one required only cutting and pasting from a Word document, I was game. 

This excerpt is from A Tale of Highly Unusual Magic. It’s technically still “in progress,” because the revision process isn’t over, but HarperCollins has scheduled it for publication in December, 2015. It’s the story of two girls–one in the United States and one in Pakistan–who each find a copy of a mysterious book. Whenever they write in it, their words also appear half a world away, adding to a story written by an invisible narrator. The stories begin unspooling madly, connecting the girls to each other and uniting their futures in ways they could not have imagined.

So, here is the excerpt:

The room smelled like clean, old things. White linens lay crisp across the bed. She walked over and scanned the books on the shelves. They didn’t seem to be arranged in any order. Paperbacks and hardcovers co-mingled, with a title about art seated beside a cheap crime novel. A leather bound book with gold lettering on the spine caught her eye. The Exquisite Corpse, it said. Kai pulled it out. She didn’t mind creepy titles.

I hereby challenge Jo Knowles, Pablo Cartaya, Kieran Scott, Heather Abel, Helen Perelman, Kiki Thorpe, Nerissa Nields!

 


There are No Small Lives

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I just finished reading The Collected Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway, and I’ve got to say that there are not a lot of laughs in it. Ernest is pretty intense. Lots of matadors getting gored and people dying in battles and depressed people. The stories  reflect Hemingway’s passion for writing, and his obsession with being an Important Author. Truthfully, I love the elegance of the prose, and I feel the short story form suits Hemingway down to the ground. But I’d still rather read Jane Austen.

Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson, the Brontës–these women had what we might think of as “small lives,” especially when compared with someone like Hemingway. Hemingway pursued adventure, whereas my aforementioned girls mostly stayed home. But their minds and souls were large, and–as a result–their observations of the quotidian resonate. These writers are Important, too, even if they never fought off a wounded rhino.

Many writers–particularly new writers–think that only Big, Important Stories matter: Death, Abuse, Drugs, etc. But small stories can also matter. Making people laugh matters. Not everything is a matter of life and death…some things are just a matter of life, period. And that’s fine, because that’s what we’re living.

I’ve  spoken with many young writers who complain that they have nothing to write about. “Nothing dramatic has never happened to me,” they say. Well, that’s okay. Think about what has happened, and what it means. Then write about that. Think about what made you sad, what made you giggle, what made you afraid. It does not have to be a lion or a known murderer. It can be a teacher, a test, a trip. It can be about someone who hurt your feelings, or someone who betrayed you.

I’ve been thinking about this, in particular, because of Paige Rawl. Paige is nineteen, and has been HIV positive since birth. On an unremarkable day in middle school, she disclosed her HIV-positive status to a friend—and within hours she became the victim of hateful bullying. To honor the release of Paige’s memoir, POSITIVE, I made a pledge to be positive for 24 hours as part of the #positiveproject campaign. In that time, I have been thinking about how necessary Paige’s story is. Bullying happens to a lot of people, but that doesn’t make it unimportant. The fact is, we are all important. Our stories matter. Your story matters.

So tell it.


If I’m Such A Perfectionist, Why Aren’t I Perfect?

This morning, I had an idea for a blog post about perfectionism. It would be inspiring and also hilarious, because I have big dreams for this blog, mmkay? People would read it and realize that perfectionism is ruining their lives and their writing, and I would, basically, solve ALL OF YOUR PROBLEMS in 500 words or fewer. However, I had a challenge: I couldn’t remember how to log in and post. This happens whenever I go on vacation or take a few weeks away from the blog. Usually, the link is just in my browser history, but if I take time off, it drops out and disappears. So I went to my site, hoping it would jog my memory. It didn’t.

Instead, my brain did this: My last post was JULY 30????!!!!! It’s September 3! I let a WHOLE MONTH go by without blogging! A MONTH! How can I call myself a blogger when I let time like that go by? I WILL NEVER BE SUCCESSFUL! This blog is a joke! I should just shut it down! I can’t even remember how to LOG IN! I’m pathetic! I should just go eat some allergy-friendly cheez doodles and forget the whole thing, except then I will never lose that weight that I want to lose and besides, I have SO MUCH WORK and everything is going to pieces right before my eyes!!!!!

And then I thought, hm.

Hmmmmmmmmmmmmm.

Sweeties, that, right there, is perfectionism. The idea that if I can’t do it perfectly, I shouldn’t do it at all. Give up. Go home. And that’s a problem. Perfectionism does not allow room for growth. It allows no room for learning. It allows no room for life.

When I was a senior in college, I spent a lot of time not writing my thesis. I just couldn’t get started. When I told my friend Tim that I felt like I couldn’t write anything that would be good enough, he said, “So–write something bad. Write the worst sentence you can. Write something that makes no sense and isn’t even spelled right. Then, anything you write after that will be an improvement.” This is good advice, and it is the basis of the idea that we all write lousy first drafts. Writers remind each other of this all the time. You can’t compare your first draft to someone else’s finished book. Trust me. I have been an editor. You have no idea what happens between drafts. All of that work is done in disappearing ink, and some of it is major.

I used to think that there were perfect people out there. Beautiful people who loved exercise and always had, like, cute notebooks where they color-coded their tasks and they were all organized and happy and cleaned their fishtanks on time. I wanted to be like them. And maybe there are people like that out there. But none of them are my friends. All of my friends are slightly messy and funny and most of them can’t find their sunglasses (they’re on top of your head, sweetie) and all of them let their kids eat too much pizza. They are, in short, like me. And I love them.

The honest truth is that trying to be perfect has not made me perfect. It hasn’t made me happy. And it hasn’t made me better at anything. It just makes me feel bad about myself.

So go be your imperfect self, and do your imperfect work, and just keep trying and getting better. And know that I am sending imperfect love your way.


The Joys of the Amateur Writer

 

Whenever I hear someone say, “I love writing!” I know that I am not talking to a professional writer. Professional writers do love writing, of course, but they mostly love it in the way that doctors love making people well. There are many, many days that doctors fail to make people well. There are days when the patient is improved. There are days when the patient is worse. The doctors just have to keep plugging, hoping that they don’t kill anybody.

Personally (and I think this is true for many professional writers), I love the idea of writing more than I love actually writing. I always want my work to feel more like happy scribbling in a notebook than like sitting down at my computer for the 378th day to struggle with the same manuscript in the hopes that it will finally be “well” enough to pay my mortgage.

The word amateur comes from the French (which comes from Latin), and means “lover of.” Amateur writers write because they love it. For the past two years, I have been an amateur writer. I enrolled in a Master’s program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and I worked with some of the best writers in the business. I didn’t worry about making money or impressing anyone, which freed me up to write humorous poetry, silly scenes, flash fiction, and crazy characters. I worked on a bunch of stuff that went nowhere. I did the best writing of my life, and that’s because the stakes were so low–if something didn’t work, I threw it out and started something new. I was surrounded by writers who were in the same boat and we supported each other because we were all in this thing for love.

But now I’m back to being a professional. I have to comb out the knots in the first draft of my current work-in-progress by the end of the week and send it off to my  editor. And, while I’m still enjoying the work, it isn’t fun in the way that eating an ice cream cone is fun. It’s fun in the way that reaching a goal is fun. It’s fun because it’s challenging.

Look, I’m not a big fan of “writing is so hard!” kind of posts. I realize that I am very, very blessed to do the work that I do. Lots of people have jobs that are way harder than mine. Armed forces, social workers, police officers, firefighters, ER staff–the list is endless. Honestly, the only job that sounds better than mine (to me) is movie star. I’m not complaining about writing, I’m just pointing out that sometimes doing something for money takes the fun, the spontaneity, out of it. In our culture, any time someone is good at something, we are quick to suggest they turn it into a career. “Live Your Bliss” articles and Etsy imply that hobbies that make us happy are only legitimized by money. That, friends, is a lie. The fact that you enjoy something and are good at it does not mean that it has to be your career. Personally, I always encourage people to write. I do not, however, always encourage people to become professional writers. There are some things that are best done for ourselves, or simply for love.

 

 


Your Process Is Not Wrong

 

 

 

Whenever I give a workshop or deliver a lecture on plotting, I find that audiences tend to break down into two kinds of people: Plot Writers and Character Writers.

Plot Writers only get to know their characters by seeing what they do. They dive into the action, and watch how the characters react. These are the outliners, and the positive thing about this kind of writer is that their plots tend to gallop forward at a swift pace. Their scenes don’t drag. The drawback is that their characters sometimes feel undercooked, two-dimensional.

Character Writers love to fill up notebooks getting to know their characters–discovering their hobbies, filling out backstory, researching where a character might go on vacation. They write well-fleshed-out, believable people. The drawback is that their plots are often thin or…well…absent. Scenes might feel pointless, even if they produce interesting banter or observations.

So–which kind of writer is better? The answer, my friends, is neither. That is because the difference between writing plot and writing character is the difference between two points on a circle. If you are drawing a circle, you can begin anywhere. You will eventually have to come around to the other side.

I used to think that my writing was “unartistic” because I like to use outlines. And I have heard many character writers bemoaning their inability to wrangle plot. But–trust me–whatever you are doing is right. It always feels messy and inadequate because we all have strengths and weaknesses. But this is what I like to say: Write to your strengths. Revise to your weaknesses. In other words, start with what you like: Outlines for me, lists of character vacation sites for my friend Lynn. Do what you need to do, and struggle through a messy first draft. Then, before you revise, stop. Take a break, and work with your weaknesses. If your plot is thin, brainstorm things that might happen, conflicts that might arise. If you characters are blah, work up some backstory, think about how they relate to each other. Then work on your next draft with your weaknesses in mind. But please do not feel that things would be easier if only you were a better writer. Everyone works differently, but everyone makes a mess. So go make your mess.

 


Magic People

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“For a few brief moments he had touched with the very tips of his fingers the edge of a magic world.”        –from George’s Marvelous Medicine, by Roald Dahl.

I have lingered over that sentence for days. It’s about more than just George and his story; it’s about childhood itself. When I was a girl, I always believed that there was magic in the world, and I sometimes even thought that I could catch sight of it out of the corner of my eye. A part of me—a lovely, uncynical part—still believes that. I think most people who write for children believe it, even if we write “realistic” fiction.

Writing for children and young adults is different from writing for grown-ups in many technical ways, but it is also a different art, one that comes from a particular worldview. It is a worldview that says that children are intelligent and valuable, that growth is possible, and that fate is at work in our lives. If you write for adults, it is possible to write a book in which nothing really happens, or things happen, but they have no meaning and nobody learns anything. Frankly, much of life is, or appears to be, this way, and adults know it. Children—with their intense sense of justice—will not stand for a book (or a world) like this. I think most children want to know that the universe is pushing us forward for a purpose, with its own secret hope that we will learn, and grow, and be better, kinder people. Yes, accidents happen. Tragedies do. Not every children’s book has a happy ending, or a facile one. But books for younger readers contain the central beliefs that good is stronger than evil, and that our actions have resonance and import. This is part of the purpose of literature—to show that we can make sense or use of what happens to us. That is the magic that, in real life, we usually only touch with the very tips of our fingers or see in the corner of our vision. But in literature, we can come fact-to-face with this magic, and it’s comforting.

I’ve read the argument that the fact that adults are reading YA is part of the evidence of the “dumbing down” of culture, but I don’t agree. Perhaps adults are looking for reassurance that there is meaning and hope at a time that feels very uncertain and frightening. Personally, I read a great deal of children’s and YA literature. I also read a great deal of classical literature (Wharton, Dickens, Austen, Tolstoy.) I enjoy nonfiction written for adults, and am currently reading a biography of Kipling that I can’t put down. But I rarely read contemporary fiction for adults, because much of it (Not all of it! Of course not all of it!) feels dreary and depressing to me. I don’t think that the contemplation of meaninglessness is sophisticated. If given a choice, that isn’t the kind of world that I want to live in.

Like the rest of my tribe, I choose magic.


Guest Post: Heather Demetrios

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Lisa Says: Friends, as you my know, I’ll be speaking at NESCBWI14 this weekend. My talk is called, “The F-Word: Failure, Rejection, and the Power of Persistence.” Let’s face it: Failures (large and small) and the revision that comes with it are simply part of the process of getting to your best work. Still, many writers fear and resist honest feedback. I want people to realize that all writers–even the best ones–face the same challenge, so I asked Heather Demetrios to write a guest post on “The Editorial Note that Saved My Manuscript.” Heather is a good friend and a rising star. Read the post, and then go buy her debut novel: Something Real, about a girl desperate to get out of the reality TV show that controls her life, and which Publishers Weekly calls “addictive yet thoughtful.”

The Editorial Note that Saved My Manuscript

By Heather Demetrios

Last night I wrote the acknowledgements for my third book. I’ll Meet You There (Macmillan/Henry Holt Winter 2015). This is always an exciting thing to do. It’s a walk down memory lane, where you get to relive the journey of your book, thinking about all the people who have played a role in shaping the world and characters of your novel. Part pseudo-Oscar speech, part toast at an imaginary reception in your protagonist’s honor, the acknowledgments are a surreal couple of pages of I DID IT. Here is what I wrote for the women who were part of my writer’s group when I wrote the novel (this was when I lived in Boston – alas, I now live in Brooklyn and am flying solo, though these women remain dear companions in my writing life):

This book wouldn’t exist at all, or at least not as you’ve read it, if it weren’t for Shari Becker, Leslie Caulfield, and Jennifer Ann Mann. You gals saw Josh before I ever did. Thank you for pointing out that my book was actually about the Marine at the Mitchells’ party and, not, in fact, about a Lindsay Lohan-type celebrity in hiding at the Paradise (Um…yeah. It’s called re-vision for a reason, y’all). You saw my heart and held it up for me and told me I wasn’t allowed to look away, even though I was scared as hell. I will be forever grateful.

This is what happened:

I had an idea for a story about a girl who worked in a roadside motel in Central California, not far from where I went to high school. All I knew was that I wanted her to be poor, living in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it-town, and I wanted the motel itself to be a character in the novel. I knew it was a place where interesting things could happen. One of those things I wanted to happen was that a starlet (a Lindsay Lohan type) would wind up hiding out there from the paparazzi for the summer. I started writing this story and the first scene was a party that takes place in someone’s backyard, the night my protagonist, Skylar, graduates from high school. I wanted to show how desperately sad the town, Creek View, was and I peppered the party with various kinds of people that illustrated the depth of hopelessness there, including having the guest of honor be a recently returned Marine from Afghanistan who lost a leg in an IED blast. In that initial version of the scene, he was just an anecdote. Scenery. Not only was I not doing him justice, my writing was tipping my hand. See, here’s the thing: this Marine stole the show. He wasn’t just a guy at the party—he was the party. Only I didn’t realize it.

Thank God for all of us that my writer’s group did. I’ll never forget that night. I feel like it kinda changed my life. We were sitting in a Panera in Brookline, Massachusetts. They talked about the usual stuff: what they liked, what they didn’t like. They asked me questions, I asked them questions. And then someone said, “I really like this Marine. What if Skylar falls in love with him?” And suddenly it was so obvious. All the clues were there, I’d just been too enamored with my other, more glitzy, plot-driven, commercial (and much, much easier) idea. Side note: there is nothing wrong with glitzy/plot-driven/commercial…at least, not in theory. But it was all kinds of wrong for this story. That’s not to say I won’t write that other story some day. But it’s not this day.

Josh Mitchell—the Marine at the party—was an example of my unconscious mind going to work on my story without me even realizing it. This is something that writer Tim Wynne-Jones talked about when I was in a workshop with him this past winter at Vermont College of Fine Arts. He said that it’s important to go back and read your work because your unconscious mind is putting stuff in there, clues as to what your story is really about. The thing is, sometimes we can’t see past our own ideas about what we think a story should be. Or we can’t see past fears we don’t even know we have. This is where editorial notes come in. Not only is it important to have people you trust looking at your work, you have to be able to have the courage to listen to what they have to say. They might not always be right, but if they are, magic can happen.

Writing I’ll Meet You There was hell (I talked about this on my blog here and here). It was also the best writing experience I’ve ever had. And I have my writer’s group and their fantastic editorial notes to thank for it. They saw the Marine at the party and they wanted to know more. They weren’t feeling the direction I was going in. I’m glad I listened to them. If you read the book, I hope you’ll be glad, too.

Bio:

When she’s not traipsing around the world or spending time in imaginary places, Heather Demetrios lives with her husband in New York City. Originally from Los Angeles, she now calls the East Coast home. Heather will receive her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts this July and is a recipient of the PEN New England Susan P. Bloom Discovery Award for her debut novel, Something Real. She is the founder of Live Your What, an organization dedicated to fostering passion in people of all ages and bringing writing opportunities to low-income youth. You can always find her on Twitter (@HDemetrios), ogling the military dogs she wants to adopt (but can’t because her NYC apartment is way too small). Find out more about Heather and her other books at www.heatherdemetrios.com.

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