Two Truths and a Lie, Part 2

Last Wednesday I started a little game of Two Truths and a Lie. What was the lie? It was…

3. Making a long drive is the only thing that can calm me down after reading a tear-jerker or watching a really sad movie.

Total falsehood! I hate driving, so it’s more likely to make me cry than cure me. I’d rather bake a batch of cookies or take a long, brooding walk. In my current, oh-so-glamorous mommy-ness, I might also hang diapers out on the line to dry or reorganize Liam’s closet. Actually, that’s probably the best option because nothing is sweeter than soft, clean baby clothes, nothing more innocent and full of promise.

Link back to read the truths, which involve life support and tattoos (well, one tattoo). I do keep saying I’m going to tell the tattoo story. Maybe next Wednesday?

Plug me in, please: free goodreads joomla plug-in

Jessica R:

This goodreads plug-in is magic!

Q: What’s the best technology in Ashley’s book? 

A: Um, magic. Duh.

That is, I want technology that makes things happen without me having to do, well, anything. Usually this means that I am disappointed and frustrated with technology. I know, I know, I need to reform. But who can blame a girl for dreaming?

Here’s a little piece of technological wonder that is straight out of my dreams and just works for me: my amazing goodreads plug-in for Joomla from (get it for free here). This plug-in makes all the reviews you post on goodreads magically appear on your own site as well.

Before this, I was manually copying my reviews into an article, a pain-in-the-patooty process that gobbled up time I could be spending actually writing and basically meant that I stopped updating my reviews on my website.

Now, I love doing my duty and reviewing the books I read. I get rewarded with the pleasure of seeing them spring up here without me doing a darn thing.

Stunning. Stellar. Stupendous… Okay, enough with the synonym fest. If you use Joomla to manage your website content and you post reviews on goodreads, save yourself a world of trouble and snag this plug-in.

Fodder for Resolutions, Part 2: Books on Teaching

One class of Chavez scholars in 2007

Last week I posted about books that might be useful in meeting writing resolutions for the new year. Here are some of my favorite teaching-related titles for folks making resolutions to up their efficacy in the classroom in 2011. In the sea of books that promise to make you a better teacher, these are islands of real insight.

Teaching As Leadership: The Highly Effective Teacher’s Guide to Closing the Achievement Gap by Steven Farr and Teach For America

I encountered the ideas now collected in this book as a Teach For America corps member in 2004. These concepts shaped–and continue to shape–my teaching practice. If I could pick one book to give to a new teacher eager to effect change in the classroom, this would be it. It helped me to set aside excuses and work strategically every day to solve problems creating barriers to my students’ learning. Caution: the philosophy proposed here may change the way you think about teaching forever.

Time for Meaning: Crafting Literate Lives in Middle & High School by Randy Bomer

This book has been one of the most influential to my teaching, and it helped me to integrate my personal reading and writing life and my work in the classroom. Because of Bomer’s book, I began each year by exchanging letters with my students about our experiences reading and writing. These were an amazing foundation for our work together. He also offers many manageable strategies for managing writing workshops and other classroom experiences targeted to turn students into readers and writers for life.

Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College by Doug Lemov

I came upon this title (Thanks, Shelley) after my days in the high-school classroom, but its strategies–especially the ideas for making it essentially impossible for students to cop out–have still been useful to me in teaching college. This is a book you can pick up today and start using to make change in your classroom tomorrow.

Psst! Like learning what I think about books? Check out many more reviews of all kinds of books, right here on my website. Like the way all my goodreads reviews magically appear on my website without me having to do ANYTHING? Check out the free plug-in from 314pies (my web designer).

Two Truths and a Lie about Ashley

Jessica R:

1. I got a tattoo of a single word (that is not a name) on my left hip to save my teaching career.

2. I want to be kept alive no matter how vegetably I seem. Just in case there’s something going on upstairs.

3. Making a long drive is the only thing that can calm me down after reading a tear-jerker or watching a really sad movie.

Stay tuned for the truths… and the lie. Got guesses? Shoot me a line here or leave a comment.

Patience: An Invitation to Thought

Credit: Kevin Trotman,

Last week I went to mail a single book at the post office. The Automated Postal thingie in the lobby was on the fritz, and little Liam and I ended up waiting in line for about forty-five minutes. A lot of people were pretty cranky about the whole waiting thing, which I get: everybody’s got a lot of stuff to get done. They budgeted ten minutes; it took waaaay longer. I was tempted to be cranky along with them, but then I thought…

I thought. As in, I started thinking. Not worrying, just thinking. I’d like to say that I figured out something important, like solving an important plot point in the new novel or coming up with the perfect dissertation idea.

I didn’t, though. I just thought sort of random grateful thoughts. I thought about the folks in front of me and the folks behind. I played with Liam a little, and I thought about what things he might do some day. I thought about the books I was reading. And all of a sudden they were calling me up.

Sometimes I think we’re a little too afraid of being alone with our own thoughts. Patience is really just an invitation to thought. That is, if we let it be.

 “Patience” by Kay Ryan is a gem of a poem that says all this better than I have. Here’s just a bit to whet your appetite:

 Who would

have guessed

it possible

that waiting

is sustainable—

a place with

its own harvests.

Fodder for Resolutions, Part 1: Books on Writing

credit: Todd J,

New Year’s Resolutions

Here’s a list of books and resources for moving forward with your resolutions for writing. Posts on teaching and general living-well resolutions to follow. Whatever your resolutions, I recommend finding a good way to track your daily progress. Check out this post, “Don’t Break the Chain,” to see more about my strategy, which involves lots of colored pens. 

Books on Writing

When I’m asked about how I get writing done and how I broke into publishing, as in this interview, I end up saying the same thing: spend at least a little time almost every day on writing, even if it’s just fifteen minutes. Of course, this is easier said than done. In “Making Writing Work,” I talk about cutting through my own excuses and getting down to business. Want to write more this year or have specific publication goals? Here are some books that I recommend.

The Plot Thickens by Noah Lukeman

This book gave me many strategies for basing my writing in the development of rich characters. A go-to resource for the first draft of a novel.

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Brown and Dave King

This is a great title for improving your writing at the sentence level and upping your craft.

Writing with Style by John Trimble

Forget Strunk and White. This is the absolute best grammar guide for elegant, readable prose. It’s consummately readable itself since John Trimble practices what he preaches.

The Sell Your Novel Toolkit by Elizabeth Lyon

So you’ve written, rewritten, and rewritten. You’ve workshopped your manuscript at a conference. You’ve joined a writer’s group and gotten feedback. You’ve let your manuscript cool off and rewritten it again. Now you think you’re ready to sell it. This book is a crash course on getting an agent and more. Don’t start querying until you’ve read it.

How to Write a Great Query Letter by Noah Lukeman

This free e-book (download here) demystifies query-writing. Lukeman is very much in the tough love camp, but if you follow his advice, your query letter will be the better for it.

Scars: Me and Not Me

My scars aren’t half as cute.

What is it about scars? I tend to think about them as a kind of record of my clumsiness: there’s where I fell off the see-saw, there’s where I cut myself opening a can, there’s where I burned myself trying to iron my shirt while wearing it.

But there’s more to them than that.On the one hand, they’re these markers of our experiences. On the other, they are places that mark the breaching of our boundaries. Literally. As in, “here, metal sliced through that apparently solid surface of my body, letting outside air rush in to greet previously sheltered cells inside me.”

One of my professors, who knows all about fancy-pants stuff like trauma theory, recently said something interesting: victims who have a physical wound (like one that would leave a scar) tend to experience more complete psychological and emotional healing. Perhaps because having a place to locate the pain gives us an analogy for internal suffering? And we can relate physical healing to the work to resolve hurts inside?

Why am I thinking about this anyway? Because in my current, not-to-be-over-discussed, novel (which doesn’t exist except in my head and in some notes), lots of people are injured. So scars–and what they can mean–might matter. 

Gobble goodreads reviews

Books get organized with goodreads

Thanks to the awesomeness of my web designer, all my goodreads reviews now magically appear on my website here. I hope you’ll take a little time to explore the reviews–and keep an eye out for more. The YA shelf with its many reviews might be especially helpful for librarians, teachers, parents, or folks looking to buy a book that will be a good fit for a special teen in their life. So have fun clicking around! And if you’re a goodreads member yourself, I’d love to be friends.

Here’s a tasty review from my YA shelf to whet your appetite:


Before I Die by Jenny Downham

Rating: 5 stars5 stars5 stars5 stars5 stars

We know three pages into “Before I Die” that sixteen-year-old Tessa won’t survive her leukemia–and that there’s plenty she still wants from life. So she makes a list and vows to do everything on it before she dies.

Like most teenagers, Tessa is at odds with her parents and angsty about how life’s shortchanged her. At first her ranting and left-field demands seem too adolescent. Isn’t the looming presence of death supposed to mature her beyond her years?

But that’s precisely the kind of “dying-young” trope that Downham admirably resists throughout the novel. Tessa burns up a maddening number of days moping when we think she should be fulfilling her dreams. She finally pushes herself to face facts: “I have two choices–stay wrapped in blankets and get on with dying, or get the list back together and get on with living.”

Downham escapes the common shortcoming of many young adult novels in which the only character that ever really matters to us is the speaker. In this novel, Tessa’s relationships are so dynamic that we ache with her at the thought of losing them. Throughout the book, their interactions thrum with tension and tenderness.

There’s Cal, the tactless younger brother who helpfully explains the process of decomposition. And Zoe, the careless best friend who has her own troubles to wake her up to life. There’s Dad in denial, determined to save Tessa through organic foods and fierce hugs. Mom, who cut out about the time of Tessa’s diagnosis and who remains slightly outside of the helping circle (without becoming a monster). And there’s Adam, the blessing of love and vulnerability that lands next door to Tessa at the right time.

And where a lesser writer might swill us readers around in dying-girl thought soup, Downham lets the telling detail speak for Tessa’s feelings instead. Her anger comes to us through her as she gives herself points for the imagined deaths of healthy strangers: “One point for the lump on her neck, raw and pink as a crab’s claw.” We feel her hunger for life as she licks an ice-cream stick until “the wood rasps my tongue.” We know her true well-wishes for those she loves as she dreams up a replacement for her boyfriend, a “girl with lovely curves and breath like oranges.”

There’s nothing treacly here. It’s a brave, humanist novel, one that leaves the reader gulping the polluted, precious air of Tessa’s world with a passion and astonishment almost as great as Tessa’s. Downham earns us the catharsis of the ending, for her characters come to take up real space in our hearts. Up until the last word, I think, we hope that Tessa will somehow, against all odds, keep breathing.

When she doesn’t, we mourn for Tessa just as she wished: by remembering her.

P.S. Here’s a link to a review of Downham’s second novel, You Against Me. It’s on my wish list, so we’ll see when I get to review it.

The Most Essential Gift for Writers: Hemingway’s Shit-Detector

onoff“The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof, shit-detector.” –Ernest Hemingway

Who could argue with Papa Hemingway’s advice? Actually, there are lots of good reasons to argue with him, starting with his suicide. After all, if you off yourself, you cannot continue to detect and eliminate the shit from your writing. You can’t do any writing. You can’t do anything. Except be dead. Being dead sucks.

Therefore, we shall modify Hemingway’s adage accordingly: “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof, shit-detector with an on-off switch.”

Now, a bit on the shit-detector part: a writer must be honest with herself about the quality of what’s on the page. She has to know what the prose is supposed to be doing, and she has to know if it’s doing it. She has to be able to see when she’s bluffing, when she’s making smokescreens with words instead of cutting to the chase. She has to recognize when her prose is merely ornamental, and, no matter how much she likes that turn of phrase, if it doesn’t do its job, she has to get rid of it. (This is known, among writers, as “murdering your darlings.” Here’s a bit more on the painful process from a Writer’s Digest article by Jim Kelly.)

However. You cannot do the important work of shit-detecting if you haven’t written anything. This is why the on-off switch on the shit-detector is essential–do not give this item to any writer on your list unless you have made sure the on-off switch is present.

What I mean is this: to get a draft that you can subsequently scrutinize, pulverize, rewriterize (err, revise), you have to first write something. And a lot of what you write is going to be shit. (Here’s a pdf of Anne Lamott’s two cents on shitty first drafts.) If that damn detector is going off constantly while you are trying to write, things are going to get ugly. You will get frustrated. You will despair. You will stop writing.

Good writing comes after plenty of shitty writing, but you can’t simply skip the shit. You have to go through it to get to the place where you can detect–and do something about–the rotten bits.

But once there is a draft, we have to be ready to look at it for what it is, with eyes unclouded by our own visions of grandeur. “I wrote a novel!” is wonderful. “I’m revising my novel!” is more important.

Here’s to working hard, being patient with the shit in your work, and then sniffing it all out.

Best wishes for a peaceful holiday season to all who have been and are celebrating.

*Photo credit: Scott Witt

Color in YA Publishing


What’s the status of color and other forms of diversity in YA publishing? How does YA publishing compare to the state of things in the industry as a whole?

A couple of weeks ago, Roxane Gay of HTMLGiant published A Profound Sense of Absence, a thought-provoking post on the lack of diversity in the celebrated Best American Short Stories anthology for 2010. Her observations generated a lot of responses, some thoughtful, some contentious. Roxane says of this year’s BASS:

What I felt most while reading BASS was a profound sense of absence. Sure there was a story about black people (written by Danielle Evans, coincidentally) and there was a story about a mechanic, to bring in that working class perspective and there was a story set in Africa, but most of the stories were uniformly about rich white people (often rich, white old men) doing rich white people things like going on safari or playing poker and learning a painful lesson or lamenting old age in Naples. Each of these stories was wonderful and I don’t regret reading them, but the demographic narrowness is troubling. It’s not right that anyone who isn’t white, straight, or a man, reading a book like this, which is fairly representative of the work being published by the “major” journals, is going to have a hard time finding experiences that might, in some way, mirror their own. It’s not right that the best writing in the country, each year, is writing about white people by white people with a few splashes of color or globalism (Africa! Japan! the hood!) for good effect.

I absolutely believe that getting recognized is generally harder for writers who aren’t white and wealthy. This hardly seems like a point worth discussing. My question is: are things any better for YA writers?

While YA publishing has been shamed by recent events (like the whitewashing of covers by Bloomsbury), overall, I’d say that there is a generally positive response to writers who are from underrepresented groups themselves or who feature characters from minorities. I’ve been fortunate to find an agent and an editor who are sympathetic to my work.

(Picture books are a different story. Now that I’m a mom, I’ve been pretty shocked at how white and homogenous the kids’ section at the library is.)

I would like to think, along with the friend who turned me onto Roxane’s post, that part of what makes the YA market robust (in contrast to the anemic general market) is its receptivity to diversity. The hugely talented Sherman Alexie, for example, finally won his first National Book Award with his hilarious YA title, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. As he said when he won the award, “Well, I obviously should have been writing YA all along.” (You can see his acceptance speech here, although you have to skip to 4:38 to get past all the introductory hooplah.) 

Was the YA world able to appreciate something in Alexie that adult publishing professionals failed to? Or am I hopelessly and wrong-headedly optimistic?

There’s more I have to say on this topic, so keep an eye out for thoughts on the representation of culture and race in YA lit and the moral imperative that (maybe) persists in publishing for kids and teens.

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All materials © 2022 Ashley Hope Pérez. Author website by Websy Daisy.