The Secret Sauce...

I wanted to share with you a tool that almost every author I know uses.  This tool is mentioned time and time again when I talk with other novelists at panels and festivals,  yet, I'm not sure that everybody knows about it. 

It's music. 

Many authors, myself included, cultivate extensive playlists we use to listen to as we draft our novels.  Not only do we have playlists for each of our books, we have special playlists to set the mood for certain types of scenes.  

For example, with Berserker, in addition to a general writing playlist, I have:
Hanne Thoughtful
Owen and Hanne Romance

I play a song to begin each writing session. I find music is so emotionally resonant that it immediately puts me into the scene. My brain fires up and opens up, as if I've had a double espresso.

Many of my favorite songs to write to have a strong rhythmic drive.  The rhythm of the music helps me stay in the saddle as I write.  Frequently, when working on a pivotal scene in a book I will put a song on repeat. I get into a bit of a trance, where I'm not really hearing the song, but it helps keep me in the emotional tone of the scene. 

Here's the really cool thing you can do with this information -- you can read to it.

Did you give in to my many requests and reminders and buy yourself a copy of Berserker? Well, as you read it, listen to this playlist. You will hear the soundtrack I used when writing it! 

Here's a closer look...
This is Hanne's theme song
And listen to this one when you get to page 239. Make sure you let the song play -- it picks up quite joyfully.
This song Owen and Hanne's song. Just listening to it makes my heart feel a bit tender.

You can check out the rest of my writing playlists on my Spotify profile, and search out other authors you enjoy. I bet they're on there!

I'm sending this off, then I'm going to get my hair blown-out and go to a launch party for Berserker. Today's a special day for me, and all the more so because of the supportive community we have built together.

With love and thanks.

Summer fun with color

Nope, I'm not here to tell you about the brightest new nail polish or trends in summer dresses -- I want to tell you about how using paint-chips has helped me with my writing this summer.
I read a great article in Writer's Digest magazine about using paint chips to help you clarify character. Yes, I'm a subscriber. (I also wrote an article for them once, actually.)

Here was the assignment: go to the hardware store and look at all the chips to find the color that feels like your character.

I went and had a ball. As you may remember, I'm hard at work on Ransacker, the sequel to Berserker. What I found was that the characters I had already written extensively for Berserker were very easy for me to identify.  

Here's what I chose:

Hanne color swatch.png

Here are the two central characters of Berserker, Hanne and Owen. I wasn't trying to be all pink/blue = girl/boy, but these were the colors that spoke to me for my two heroes. Both are decent, kind people, and these colors felt very grounded and amiable.

Next door are the chips for the antagonists, Rolf and Ketil. These two guys are about as different as different can be. The combinations they make with Hanne and Owen felt right to me. That Ketil is a real SOB, and this bright color felt dangerous.

But when I went to pick out the colors for Sissel and the two men she's in conflict with in Ransacker, I discovered a problem.

These were the colors that felt like they represented the characters. But... hmm... no contrast. No drama between these colors.

Sissel color.png

Doing this exercise led me to see that I had a weak character on my hands -- JP (John Patrick), who is the love interest! I saw that he was too dull, too safe, as I had been writing him.

Even before I did this exercise I had suspected that I didn't have him quite right, but my trip to the paint store  confirmed it. I got back to work and took the character in a new direction.

After I had worked with him for a few chapters, I went back to Herb Lack paints, here in Nyack, NY. Look what I came home with:

Sissel color (1).png

Hey, hey, hey! This is working! This trio feels like romance and suspense.

Now I was cooking! These colors play together as the three characters do in the book. They're not pure colors -- they are a bit complicated and hard-to-know. This fits for the three young people I'm writing about. And I like the way they react with each other.

I had so much fun working with the swatches, that I brought them to the writing workshop I lead here in town. I made two prompts based on them. 

Here are the prompts, for your writing or teaching pleasure. Take 5 minutes for each.


Slow Fade...

At the hardware store, pick several swatches that start fairly light. 

When you are ready to write, draw one of them at random.

Write a scene that begins in the emotional timbre of the lightest color and deepens in intensity as the scene progresses.


Colors argue

At the store, get swatches in bright, contrast colors. Cut them into single-color squares.

Put one from each swatch into an envelope.

The prompt is to write a scene where two of the colors have a disagreement.

When you are ready to write, dump out the colors and pick two.

Before I go - remember, we are still accepting members for the
This is a super fun initiative Macmillan is doing. The first 400 people to sign up get an awesome welcome packet with tons of swag. You'll get missions and will have chances to win an ARC and other prizes. 

Love to you!



Screen Poisoning. Is That A Thing?

"Screen poisoning" is what I call an illness that sets in when I've been spending too much time in front of my computer and engaged with my phone.

Symptoms include physical complaints such as:

  • Dry eyes
  • Strained vision
  • Shoulder and/or neck pain
  • Feeling drained

And mental difficulties like:

  • Fogginess
  • Being easily distracted
  • Fractured attention span
  • Forgetfulness
  • and... I can't remember what else

As a novelist, I often spend 8 hours a day in front of my computer.  I go home and then can squeeze in another hour of so answering emails on my phone.  Sometimes I find myself checking out of moments with my kids to check my emails or texts. During the election – and the fallout thereafter – I had a really bad case of screen poisoning. I found I was spending hours a day on Facebook, in addition to all my other daily screen time. I decided to fight back.

 DRAMATIC RE-ENACTMENT. Do not try this at home.

DRAMATIC RE-ENACTMENT. Do not try this at home.

I began a series of experiments -- how could I change my behavior regarding my computer and my phone to decrease my overall screen time? Would making these changes have an effect on my mental and physical well-being?

Experiment #1: I ditched social media, by accident.
I was simply trying to make my phone less sexy, okay? I wanted to stop picking it up all the time. So I took Facebook and Twitter off my phone. I was shocked by the difference this made. For one thing, it revealed to me how often I was turning to my phone for stimulation, because without FB and Twitter, there was hardly anything to do on my phone! I’d pick it up, open it, see I had no new emails or messages then just… set it down again.

I wasn’t consciously trying to go off FB and Twitter, but I found that a few weeks went by without me checking in at all. And… I loved it. I didn’t miss posting or reading my friends’ posts – and my FB friends, well, they don’t seem to miss me! I’ve received exactly one email from a friend saying they noticed I hadn’t been posting on FB – and that one was just to make sure I was doing okay.

Now, my husband had ditched FB a year ago, and he’d been telling me to make the jump, but I had held on. For one thing, there’s an expectation that Young Adult novelists will have awesome and engaging social media feeds. I’ve kept up my Instagram account because I love posting photos and looking at other people’s photos, so I’ve still got that one. I guess it’s too early to say if this will negatively impact my career as a YA novelist. We’ll have to see, my friends, but I tell you – I saw a definite boost in my mental and physical well-being from dropping FB and Twitter.

Experiment #2: I went analog for my daily to do list.
I’ve been using ToDoist for years now to track my daily tasks, and while I like it – it was adding to my screen time in a big way.

I had seen ads (yes, on Facebook),  for a premium journal called a Self Journal. It claimed to be “A simple yet powerful daily planner to help you optimize your day, tackle your goals, and be happier.”

These promises seemed a bit of a reach, but I was delighted to find that the journal has helped me do just what it says. It’s just a nice daily planner, but it’s laid out in a way that helps you to structure your time. It also has some nice, morale boosting elements planned in – you write down three things you are grateful for in the morning and there are nice, peppy quotes sprinkled throughout.

The biggest gift the journal has given me is a strange concept – to give my every working minute a job. In the morning, the first thing I do it sit with my journal. I sort my available hours into blocks, and tackle the most important work first. Before I started using this, I would sit down at my desk and answer emails for a couple of hours. The emails would have a bunch of mind-draining questions and I’d have to go get information and write it up nicely, etc, etc. in order to answer them all! Exhausting. After doing emails, I would then turn to my writing!

I was putting everyone’s requests in front of my own work.

Zoinks! Once I saw this pattern, I knew I had to stop it.

Now I make sure the first two-hour block goes to writing. Then I do other tasks, have lunch and resume for another one to two-hour writing block in the afternoon. It’s working so beautifully for my book, but you know what happens sometimes? ...I don’t get to all my emails.

At first, this made me panicky. I’ve always prided myself on being a fast email responder, turning them all around within a matter of hours. Now I had become someone who didn’t get back to people… sometimes until the next day!  (Just to be totally transparent here – I still answer professional emails toot suite, as well as ones from my mom and dad!) I’ve found that, again, no one really complained about me slacking off in this area.

Does working with a paper journal impact my mental health? Yes! I really like checking things off in the journal. And I find the moments of reflection it encourages boost me up. It has an area on each page for you to write goals – they can be lifetime goals, daily goals, monthly – whatever you want.

Here are some goals I’ve written down over the last few weeks:
Get a writing residency and write edgy, crazy sci fi short stories. Love exercise again. Let go of perfectionism. Draw more with Rex. Learn to speak with a Norwegian accent and pitch yourself as the narrator for the audio book edition of Berserker.

Are those fun to read? They sure were fun to rite...

Experiment #3: I started writing wirelessly.
I rent a lovely office in Nyack, NY. I like my office. It has some great art in it, and photos of my friends and family. I have a fancy sit/stand desk and an ergonomic chair. I work well in my office, but I’d found that I often got more writing done when sitting in cramped, uncomfortable places, like cafes and on airplanes. Why was this?

Part of it, I reasoned, was connectivity. With my giant, gorgeous iMac, surfing the web is a constant temptation. There are also books to distract me in my office, and a stack of bills sitting on the desk, waiting for my attention (they’re staring at me right now).

I had long had my eye on the FreeWrite, basically a fancy typewriter that backs up your writing to the cloud, but can’t surf the web. But the $500 price tag, was a bit prohibitive for a productivity experiment. Then I found someone online mention a similar, but much cheaper device: the Neo 2 by Alphasmart.

The Neo 2 is a word processor that looks like a keyboard, and has a small screen where your typing shows up – a screen like one you’d find on an old calculator. I bought one for $40 off Amazon and it is my pride and joy.

You just write on this thing. You don’t edit. You can’t cut and paste. You certainly don’t flit off to do online research. Every once in a while, you plug it into your computer and open a Word file. Then you press send and it types your work into the document. It’s basically a big, portable keyboard that saves up your words then spews them out onto a computer file when you’re ready.

Has it improved productivity? Yep. Morale? Triple yep – I get such a kick out of how flat-out weird it is. And it makes for good conversations.
It turns out that I get more written in a Starbucks, on a dorky word processor, than I do in my comfy office with my ergonomic keyboard.

  Here are two photos of the tools I mentioned. Do you feel sorry for the Neo2 because it has no sexy marketing photos available online that I could pull? Well, don't!  The Neo2 is proud to be a nerd.

Here are two photos of the tools I mentioned. Do you feel sorry for the Neo2 because it has no sexy marketing photos available online that I could pull? Well, don't!

The Neo2 is proud to be a nerd.

 Fancy Self Journal. I love it!

Fancy Self Journal. I love it!

This newsletter has turned out to be a very long one, but heck, if you’ve read this far you must be enjoying it so here are some resources that helped me in my experiments. I highly recommend all of these:


Deep Work by Cal Newport

The Big Disconnect by Catherine Edd Steiner-Adair

Daily Rituals by Mason Currey


Four Simple Habits To Take Back Control from Time Well Spent

Do You Have Email Apnea? by Linda Stone

That's it, my dear friends!

Sending lots of love and best wishes for your digital sanity,

Fight back by... reading?


Since the election, I have seen fellow YA authors coming together in new ways. I've witnessed the beginnings of some programs and social media publicity drives that could really engage young voters. But I just heard about a truly inspired initiative that I had to share right away.

Gene Luen Yang is a gifted graphic novel writer who I met a few years back. He is smart, kind and is currently the National Ambassador for Children's Literature. He has had a brilliant idea for a way to help us all expand our empathy and has teamed up with Macmillan to present: 

Reading Without Walls is a month-long, nation-wide program to promote diversity in reading. It's taking place this month. Gene is challenging us all to: 

  • Read a book about a character who doesn't look or live like you.
  • Read a book in a format you don't typically read -- graphic novels, poetry, audiobooks, plays.
  • Read a book about a new subject you don't know much about. 

Isn't this a great idea? Let's do it together, my dear newsletter comrades! 

Let's all take Gene's challenge, and spread the word among our friends -- especially young friends. I'm going to sweeten the pot by adding a PRIZE:

I will give a personalized, autographed set of paperbacks of the Monument 14 trilogy to one person, selected at random who completes this challenge.

To win:
1.  Do one - and one - of the Reading Without Walls challenges listed above in the next 3 weeks. 
2.  Email me and tell me what you read by April 30th.
3.  That's it!

I will compile all the books/plays/graphic novels/what-have-yous into a list for my May newsletter and I'll announce a winner then, too.

I, for one, am going to read Gene's American Born Chinese, which I have been meaning to read forever!
You can find more resources to support Reading Without Walls here:

We Book People Must Stick Together


Greetings, friends. I've been going around and around on what to say to you all. These are such strange and troubling times. I have written and deleted and re-written this newsletter article a half-dozen times now.  I even made an info-graphic on how to #ResistTrump. But in the end, I've decided that I'm in no place to give advice or make reassurances. 

Luckily - I had the honor of witnessing a brilliant and moving keynote address at a Young Adult Book festival in Keller, TX. Jeff Zentner, who I had not met before, gave a brave and heartening speech. Jeff is the author of the William C. Morris Award winning book The Serpent King (2016) as well as Goodbye Days (2017)He is also a prosecutor for the State of Tennessee. I asked him if I might have the speech to share with you all and he agreed. The speech is below (with a couple tiny edits) -- I was going to just put in a couple of excerpts, but it's so good and so moving, I wanted you to have it all. I'm hoping the teachers who subscribe to this newsletter might want to read it - or parts of it - to their classes.

I send love to you all, and prayers that the struggle our nation is now enduring will result in growth, progress and, ultimately, a more peaceful and unified nation. I know it's a tall order. But I figure I'm allowed to reach high in my prayers.

Here's a quote from Jeff's speech that I would like to have written. I didn't, but he certainly speaks for me: "Let this community of Book People lift you and sustain you if you feel alone and afraid. Be there for each other. I am here for you."


Good afternoon, everyone. My name is Jeff Zentner. I’m the author of a book called The Serpent King and another one coming out in March called Goodbye Days. I am so very honored to be speaking to you and I want to thank the organizers of this festival for inviting me. I love Book People. You are truly my people… I got the invitation to speak to you months ago, and I had all planned out what I wanted to say. I wanted to talk to you about living a creative life and clawing out the time to create and then guarding it from the world.

And then, in those intervening months, the world changed and so what I wanted to say changed. It’s a humbling privilege to get to speak to an audience like this and I don’t know how many more times I’ll be asked to do so, so I’m going to pour out some things that have been weighing heavy on me for many months…

I'm going to talk to you today with two voices. Sometimes I speak with the voice of an author. I will definitely speak to you with that voice. But being an author isn't my only job. Like most authors I have another job.

I prosecute murderers and rapists and child abusers for the State of Tennessee. I don't talk about it much because this space, this book space, is a garden for me. It's a place of love and hope and beauty, whereas I see so many of the dark and terrible things that people do to one another in my day job.
In that job, I make cases. I make cases for justice to be done so that people can't hurt anyone any more. And today, I want to speak also with that voice and with my voice as an author and make a case for stories. A case for empathy. A case for goodness.
I want to start with a very simple truth, and if you’ve already figured this out and I’m sure you have, then that’s great, but here it is: Adults will let you down. Our highest institutions will let you down.

What do I mean by that? I mean that people who lack empathy in their hearts will win important contests and be entrusted with great power and they’ll try to use that power to harm those who are weaker than them or different from them or who our society has traditionally pushed to the margins. They’ll try to use that power to limit the ability of people they disfavor to lead joyful and complete lives, as full participants in our society. They’ll use their positions of power to convince fearful people to place the blame for their fears at the feet of people who have less power than them.

The world has always been thus and to some extent, it will probably always be thus. I believe this stems from fundamental weaknesses in the human character, weaknesses that take a lot of work on the individual level to overcome. Work that many people aren’t willing to do because it feels better to be selfish; because our society often elevates selfishness to a virtue. There have been times in our country’s history when it has been easier to forget this and I believe you all may be coming of age in a time when it is harder to forget this.

I believe there are tumultuous days ahead. You’ll be entering adulthood in a time when many will be telling you that wrong is right, bad is good, and up is down.    

Are we having fun so far? This is a fun speech, right? I’m more fun than a barrel of monkeys. Our world is dark and dangerous and full of evil. Good times! Anyone who’s read my books knows that I believe in hope, but I also believe in making you crawl through a sewer pipe filled with sadness to get to it.

And that brings me to why I’m talking about these things at a gathering of young people who love books. It’s because you’re my hope. One of the fundamental qualities needed to fight the gathering darkness of which I speak is empathy. Empathy is the ability to imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes. To imagine what it would be like to be them. To feel their joy when they feel joyful. To feel their sorrow when they feel sorrowful. People of empathy do to others as they would have others do to them because they can imagine how terrible it would feel to be wronged.

And I believe that Book People are our brightest beacons of empathy, and you all are Book People. If you weren’t Book People, you wouldn’t be here and you wouldn’t be Book People if you didn’t possess extraordinary empathy. It takes great empathy to be so interested in the lives of other people that you don’t even demand that they really exist! It takes great empathy to be able to so vividly imagine the lives and inner hearts of others that you can do it simply by reading ink symbols on slices of processed wood pulp, and furthermore, that you enjoy doing it, and enjoy doing it enough to come to a conference full of other Book People and listen to an obscure author whose favorite restaurant is Cracker Barrel give a depressing speech!

In the coming days, you Book People will need to exercise your powers of empathy to help identify and prevent harm to others. I’m very big on people protecting people. It’s why I work both the jobs I do. One of the best ways you can do that is by standing with the people who are the targets of harm. The coming days will require your empathy to armor itself with courage. They’ll require you to love others more than you’re afraid for yourself, because the only thing that drives out darkness is when love is more powerful than fear.   

In the days to come, you need to allow your empathy to become an unstoppable force inside you, something that moves you to action. Something that won’t let you stand idly by when evil happens in the world. It needs to become a force that makes you stand up with someone who’s being abused in public. That makes you stand up with someone whose place of worship is vandalized or desecrated. That makes you pick up the phone and make calls to lawmakers when you see something you know is wrong. Your empathy needs to become an active force that makes you lift your voice in support of people whose voices are unheard.

In the days to come, you Book People will have to be the keepers of our values. You’ll need to become our nation’s memory and conscience. You’ll need to carry a bright and unquenchable flame inside you.

Because we may not be able to count on the highest seats of power to remind us that the diversity of our nation is one of its greatest values. So it will fall to you.

We may not be able to count on the highest seats of power to remind us that consent matters. So it will fall to you.

We may not be able to count on the highest seats of power to honor facts and truth and learning and wisdom. So it will fall to you.

We may not be able to count on the highest seats of power to protect those in our society who have not been empowered to protect themselves and allow all Americans to live lives of joy, as full participants in society. So it will fall to you.

We may not be able to count on the highest seats of power to stand against greed and corruption. So it will fall to you.

We may not be able to count on the highest seats of power to stand for kindness and decency, so it will fall to you.

And all of this will require you to keep filling yourself with the best words and ideas, because these’ll be your sword and shield in the battles to come. It’ll require you to keep filling yourself with the stories of courage and hope that make you feel strong and lift you up when you feel exhausted and hopeless. It’ll require you to share these words and ideas with those who need them. It’ll require you to create new stories filled with the best words and ideas; new stories of courage and hope.

Nothing forces people to confront the humanity of others like engaging with their stories. It’s no accident that, like clockwork, evil people throughout history have attacked stories and art and tried to stamp them out or control them in order to force them to tell the story they want to hear.  Art softens hearts and teaches. It raises us up. Even those in the highest seats of power can be wounded and chastened by falling on the wrong side of art.

So I hope, Book People, that you’ll let the stories you love take root in you and grow and blossom and bear the fruit of other art. I hope you’ll tell your story so powerfully that no one can deny your humanity or anyone else’s. I hope you’ll tell stories so prescient and wise that no one can deny their lessons. I hope you’ll tell stories so filled with hope that they set a fire in everyone who reads them. I hope you’ll tell stories so filled with goodness that evil withers and turns to ash before them.

I wish you weren’t on the edge of adulthood in a time like this. I know what it’s like to come of age at a perilous and tumultuous time. On September 11, 2001, I was 23 years old. I had been married for less than one month. I had just moved into the duplex my wife lived in in college. I was older than you and still, I felt like a baby. I watched the towers burn and I still remembered reading once on the side of a packet of oatmeal that each tower was its own zip code. I must have been 10 when I ate that oatmeal but it still felt like yesterday. I got up on the morning of September 12, 2001 and went for a run and the street was lined with American flags and even though we were united against a common foe, I still felt the dread of knowing that I had inherited a world different from my parents’ world. I felt the fear of sailing into uncharted waters.  

During those dark days, I clung to stories because stories are there for us in dark days. I know that there are days coming that’ll force all of us to cling to stories.

…In difficult times, we can lean on stories as a source of strength and comfort. They can lift us and sustain us. I hope you’ll seek out the stories that make you feel strong. I hope you’ll share those stories so that other people can feel strong. I hope you’ll create stories that make you feel strong and that make other people feel strong.

And look around you. These are the people sitting around the fire with you. This is your band. These are your people. Let this community of Book People lift you and sustain you if you feel alone and afraid. Be there for each other. I am here for you. Every author in this room is here for you. Every teacher and librarian is here for you…
(Stories) tell us the truth of other people’s lives. They shine a light on shared humanity. They make us understand that we are different, but not different. That our differences are something that makes the human tapestry richer and more colorful, and not a threat.  

Who here has heard of Anne Frank? Show of hands. You know her because you know her story. She wrote it down so that history couldn’t deny her humanity.

Who here knows the name of the guy who invented the Berlin Wall? No one? History does not honor the names of people who build walls. 

History does not honor the names of people who build monuments to fear and hatred. History honors the names of people who tear down walls. History honors the names of people who tell stories so powerful that walls crumble and fall before them. History honors the names of those who have the best ideas. Who walk the best paths. Who act with the most kindness and decency and empathy toward others. Who protect those who are being bullied and mistreated.

In the coming days, there’s a question I want you to ask yourselves: “if not me, then who?
If not me, then who will stand for people whose voice isn’t being heard?
If not me, then who will stand for the right of all people to lead lives of joy and dignity?
If not me, then who will stand for facts and reason and learning and truth?
If not me, then who will stand for kindness and decency and generosity?
If not me, then who will stand for justice and equality?

I want you to demand that the people in power in our country uphold these values, whomever it may be. I want alarm bells to go off in your heads every time people in power talk about using the law to push around or punish people who are different from them—whether it be by virtue of skin color, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, religion, gender identity, or social class or anything else. I want alarm bells to go off in your head because this is a failure of empathy. And without empathy, we have no society. We have a small group of powerful people and a lot of powerless people. Without empathy, we have a fundamentally and structurally unfair society where some people enjoy incredible privilege and others enjoy none. I believe we can do better than that. I believe we are better than that.

As I said at the beginning, I wrote a book called The Serpent King. It’s not a fantasy novel; it’s the story of three misfit teenagers who’re best friends, trying to survive senior year in their small town in Tennessee. In it, I try to talk about these things I’ve talked about. There are characters with great privilege who use their privilege to lift up others and make their lives better. I wrote this book because I believe deeply in the things I’ve just told you. I wrote it because I love you and I want you to have stories where people struggle and find hope. I have a lot of hope.

I believe that your future is bright, Book People. I believe that you’ll laugh and fall in love and get married and lie on grass in the summertime and stare into the stars and build lives and hold your children and grandchildren, and read stories and write stories and create beauty and friendship, and lead lives of great joy. But more than any other generation that’s come before you, you’ll have to make it bright. Not just for yourselves, but for everyone.     

I can’t pretend to know everything that will happen in the days to come. But I know that stories are like fire. They give us light. They give us warmth. They burn things down so that new, green things can grow up and replace them.

Keep reading stories. Keep writing stories. Keep sharing stories. I will forever be at your side. Thank you.