Writing Tuesday: Meeting a Writing Hero

Listen, it's fine if you don't know who Leigh Bardugo is... Processed with VSCO with c1 preset

Wait, wait, I can't do this. I can't start out this post with a lie! It is not fine if you don't know who Leigh Bardugo is, so I'm here to tell you some things about her: first, she's an incredible writer of young adult literature. She has penned several novels in the Grishaverse, a fantasy world entirely of her own making; plus, she was one of four YA authors tapped by DC to write coming-of-age stories of some DC Heroes (hers? None but WONDER WOMAN Y'ALL). So she's kind of a big deal. Like, the amount of talent she has for storytelling and world building is just, like...I want it.

Another thing to know about Leigh is that she's committed to writing diverse books. She's a white Jewish woman, but she incorporates characters of varying colors, religions and sexualities in order to create a world that similarly parallels our own. She also writes characters with disabilities; as someone who has dealt with chronic pain and psychical disability herself, Leigh hasn't shied away from showing that in her fiction. And that's incredible.

All of this is stuff you could find with a quick Google search of her name. But today I want to share a personal story, about how much of an incredible person Leigh Bardugo is. And it all started with her book, WONDER WOMAN: WARBRINGER, which was released earlier in September.

It all started then because, of course, Leigh was going on tour for that book; and, fortunately for me, that tour included a stop in New York City. In case you've missed it, THAT'S WHERE I LIVE!

Now, the last event I went to at a New York Barnes & Noble was the Jojo Moyes/Emilia Clarke signing last year, so I got my butt out of the house seven hours before the event was to begin and trekked to Union Square for a wristband. Fortunately, they were still in stock.

As the seconds ticked ever closer to 7 p.m., my heart began to race a little more. I was excited because this event included a conversation between Leigh and Daniel Jose Older, another incredible writer; book signing with personalization, yo; and a chance to take a picture (seen above)! Because I'm a dolt, I showed up just a few minutes before 7, and grabbed a seat towards the back of the auditorium. Sitting in the back of the class was a winning strategy all through college, so I didn't figure it would hurt.

Except of course, they let you line up to meet Leigh by row.

Now, thanks to my job as a barista, I go to bed around, oh, 9 p.m....if I'm staying up late. Usually, I'm in bed by 8:30 p.m. Last Wednesday, I didn't even line up to meet Leigh until 9:15. This is how committed I was to meeting her.

I was nervous, though. What do you say when you meet someone you adore, who's writing has meant the world to you? I had submitted interview questions to Leigh a few weeks earlier through her publicist; should I mention that? Should I go with my gut and say, "Hey, how are ya?" and when she responded with, "Good, and you?" say, "Starstruck"?

Cause I was. I was completely struck by her dazzling stardom. I mean, she was so great on stage. Funny, self-possessed yet modest, full of wisdom. And then there's me, small and terrified and without a book deal to my name.

Turns out I didn't have to worry about it, because as soon as she saw the little Post-It that said "Karis" attached to my book, Leigh smiled and said, "Oh, are you the same Karis...?"

SHE RECOGNIZED MY NAME Y'ALL!!

And then — then!

She held out her arms and, when I hesitated, said, "Are you a hugger?"

HECK YEAH I'M A HUGGER LEIGH BARDUGO, I'LL GIVE YOU A HUG!

Wow. I was amazed. While she signed my book, I took a deep breath and told her what I'd mentioned in the interview questions: that I read the Six of Crows duology during a desperately miserable depressive episode, and they helped me survive. I teared up a little. I told her "thank you."

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She wrote a little note in my book, we took a picture, and I went on my way.

I didn't sleep all night. I was still too riled up, too excited.

And now, to get to the point of this story: Leigh is not only an incredibly talented writer, one who cares about diversity — she's a real human. One who cares. She recognized my name and remembered it, knew who I was...and I'm not the only one. I saw her greet so many other fans with recognition, like she'd met them before and was excited to see them. And I believe she was — excited to see them, to remember them.

I think it's that she just cares, y'all. On a human level, she gives a crap about the people who read her books and the people she meets. And she remembers them.

And that's my writing lesson for the week. No matter how good you are, how successful, how amazing...never stop caring about people. About readers and non-readers and everyone in-between. Because if we don't care about people...what the heck are we even writing for?

The best writers, it turns out, don't do it for the glory or the recognition. They do it because the care about people; stories can honestly change lives, and to be a part of that, to do something like that...you have to care about the people reading your words.

I'm so grateful for writers like Leigh who care. And when I grow up...I want to be just like her.

Writing just won't let you go: a profile of Katherine Nichols

KRN portrait For the past 20 years, Katherine Nichols has worked, in some way or another, as a writer.  Whether that means working as a print journalist or hosting a TV feature or, finally, penning the nonfiction book for teens DEEP WATER, Katherine has felt the pull of writing on her life.

"Though I have gone in other directions, I keep returning to writing because I love the challenge, the perpetual opportunity for learning and improvement," she said. "But it never gets easier. So perhaps a more honest answer is that it won’t let me go."

When she was a young girl, Katherine made mini-books out of construction paper. She describes these early literary pursuits as "average stories and terrible illustrations," but with typical childlike aplomb, she demanded an audience of her family members.

In addition, like so many other writers, Katherine was a reader. As a child, her parents not only read aloud to her, but modeled the life of a reader by being avid consumers of the written word themselves.

In school, Katherine felt herself drawn to English classes. "I found them so enjoyable that I would save the homework for last," she said, "as a reward after finishing math and chemistry and biology."

Partly out of the necessity of having a steady paycheck, Katherine turned to journalism, saying, "If you’re not a bestselling author, it’s tough to make a living from fiction. Journalism jobs and assignments came more easily to me."

But her choice of this career isn't entirely pragmatic, though that is of course a big part. She said she's a naturally curious person who enjoyed that journalism allowed her to learn about others, in essence to have a brand-new education in a new field almost every day.

Plus, there was the added benefit of being able to help someone with her stories. Early in her career, she published a story about a young man who, after a car accident, became a quadriplegic. He taught himself to paint by holding the brush in his teeth, and Katherine's feature on him was published by the San Diego Union.

"It ... brought attention to his work," she said. "The idea that I could do something positive by telling someone else’s story inspired me."

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Katherine's debut book, DEEP WATER, released May 2 from Simon True, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, tells the story of a group of young men from Coronado, California, who during the summer of 1971 begin a drug-smuggling business that turns into a booming, $100 million endeavour. The catch? They are all athletes who swim the drug packages across the border.

It's an intriguing story, and one that Katherine was familiar with as someone who grew up in Coronado.

"Growing up [in] the small beach town and graduating from the same high school gave the narrative an insider’s perspective," she said.

Although she originally planned to fictionalize the tale of the Coronado Company, Katherine ended up writing it as a nonfiction book after Simon True approached her with the idea.

In speaking about the experience of writing the book, Katherine acknowledged that there was something freeing in writing about criminals (with the caveat that they were non-violent ones).

"It was rewarding to transcend that judgment, to find other ways to connect with their experiences," she said. "Because we are all human beings with needs, desires, strengths, and flaws that influence our choices. Who among us has not made a mistake with potentially serious consequences?"

DEEP WATER can be purchased on Amazon and more information about the book can be found on Facebook. Feel free to check out Katherine's website or follower her on Twitter to stay up to date with her writing.

COVER REVEAL: "Solomon's Bell" by Michelle Lowery Combs, lover of YA

If you've ever wanted to read a book about a strong teenage girl with magical powers who fights off her enemies using her own wits and abilities, well...you need to read Michelle Lowery Combs' Genie Chronicles! Hello, hello, and welcome to Living Life the Write Way's very first COVER REVEAL for World Weaver Press! Today, I'm revealing the cover for Solomon's Bell, the second installment in Michelle's young adult fantasy series, the Genie Chronicles.

According to WWP's website, "Ginn thinks she has problems at home until she magically lands herself in 16th Century Prague."

A bit of backstory: Ginn is a regular teenager until she discovers she's actually a genie. Solomon's Bell picks up where the first book, Heir to the Lamp, left off, and takes Ginn all the way to Prague in the 16th century.

Below, you'll find the cover, revealed today for the first time (and I'm lucky enough to be a blog participating in the reveal!) as well as a profile on Michelle, who, through her responses to my questions, has inspired and amused me greatly. I hope I someday get to meet this woman in person!

Are you ready to see the cover?

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Michelle grew up in a series of small towns in central Alabama, bouncing about after her parents' divorce from each other and subsequent splits from various other partners. One such home was close to a public library, and the family's financial situation made it such that buying books was impractical, so they walked to the library to borrow them.

"My mother read aloud to my sister and me: The Boxcar Children, The House at Pooh Corner, a children’s illustrated Bible. We loved each of the stories, and experiencing them made me an avid reader," Michelle said.

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As happens so often with writers, the love of reading and stories bled easily into a love of writing and telling stories. Michelle's first experience was with writing fanfiction of Jim Henson's Muppet story, Pigs in Space.

"I was intrigued by the idea of characters that I loved so much in an unexpected setting. If Miss Piggy could be a space traveler, anything seemed possible," Michelle said. "I wrote about it at length—phonetically, I should add, because I used words I had no idea how to spell as a second grader."

For a few years in middle school, she graduated to writing and reading publicly, but says those experiences were awkward and uncomfortable. "Teenage me then retreated from writing for any kind of notoriety," she said. "I was more awkward than talented, and I knew it."

So it wasn't until 2012, when she was trying to place her first novel, that Michelle again entered the world of writing for the public. She won a national contest (!!), First Place for Best First Chapter of a Novel, had the piece published in a literary magazine, and that helped lead to the publication of the Genie Chronicles.

Processed with VSCO with g3 presetThe second book in the series, Solomon's Bell, is the result of research Michelle completed for the first one, Heir to the Lamp.

She hit on the idea of genies because she was exploring the concept of otherness through the supernatural, and, finding an under-representation of genies in YA literature, created Ginn, a teenage genie.

A rabbit hole of research stemming from grimoires (ancient books of magic) and meandering through the Italian Renaissance and King Solomon's ancient temple led her, eventually, to a synagogue in Prague.

"I decided, pretty early on while writing Heir to the Lamp, that my second book would introduce a new, more ancient and possibly more dangerous adversary for Ginn..." Michelle said, "and that this adversary would take them on an adventure to 16th Century Prague."

In her pursuit of setting a novel in Prague, Michelle had to again embark on that quest that can set a writer to pulling out their hair: research. However, she now has a wealth of knowledge about the capital of the Czech Republic.

"I can tell you the kinds of trees that grew in Prague’s public spaces in the 16th century: poplars;" she said. "The number of steps leading up to Prague Castle: 247; and just about anything you’d ever care to know about the Orloj, Prague’s astronomical clock tower."

She described the process of writing Solomon's Bell as very fun, and the thing she loves the most about her book is her main character's perseverance.

"She isn’t a damsel in distress by any means, and while she is smart enough to utilize the talents of the young men (and djinni) in her life, it’s ultimately her that works through solving her own predicaments," Michelle said.

Michelle's aunt (and a youth librarian), Gwen Rollins, says that Solomon's Bell will appeal to readers of all ages, and attributes this to Michelle's skill as a writer as well as the intriguing nature of the story itself.

In addition, she said, "The characters are lively, well-developed personalities who, while colorful, are unquestionably believable. Young readers are bound to find the characters relatable since they are, for the most part, ordinary kids in anything-but-ordinary circumstances."

Mary Furlow, a friend of Michelle's through a local writing group in Alabama, said, "[Michelle] blends her easygoing humor with a heartfelt style that is very appealing to readers. I think people can easily identify with her."

Gwen, who says she has known Michelle "since her red-faced, clinch-fisted, and very vocal debut onto life’s stage," added that her niece is a special person as well as a talented writer. "She has the ability to spark excitement in others no matter the topic, and brings an energy to bear that is irresistible."

Michelle described her childhood as one of upheaval — her parents divorced and remarried a combined total of nine times, which, incidentally, is the number of schools she attended before reaching seventh grade.

Nonetheless, despite commotion in her early life, Michelle has overcome obstacles in pursuit of writing and storytelling.

She landed upon YA as a genre because she ran out of books for young readers at her local library and wanted to add to the list of books available for youth. She had an 11-year-old daughter at the time, one who put much emphasis on her approaching 13th birthday as a day when things would magically change, and that is why Ginn, protagonist of the Genie Chronicles, is 13 when her life changes.

Turns out, I could have wished for the moon for my birthday and it would have fallen from the sky into my back yard. Oblivious to my awesome moon-falling-from-the-sky potential...

— Excerpt from Heir to the Lamp, by Michelle Lowery Combs, published by World Weaver Press

And because writing a book can change a life, I had to ask Michelle how the Genie Chronicles have positively affected her life. She cited the embrace of sci-fi/fantasy communities in the South, and the renewal of her own fan-girl persona, as positive changes.

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"I’ve had the distinct privilege of meeting some of the most friendly and inclusive people in the whole world at some truly fantastic [conventions]," she said. "I’ve begun to entertain the notion of participating as a cosplayer at some events in 2017. I think I’d make a convincing Professor Sprout from Harry Potter, if I do say so myself."

Michelle's writing can be found on her blog, Through the Wormhole: Confessions of a Book Worm, where you can find stories about her life with five children ranging in age from 21 to nine, as well as the writing process and what books she's loving. Follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook for more updates.

Solomon's Bell releases March 7, 2017, which means you've got just enough time to order Heir to the Lamp and read it before it comes out!