Posts in Life
Looking back on 2017
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2017

Year in Review

Wow, after all of the madness of this year, I'm still finding it hard to believe that 2017 is in the rearview mirror. I've decided to start a new tradition of recapping my year so I can look back on these entries year from now and have a better sense of where I've been and where I'm heading. These questions were pulled from this site, with just the year updated. 

Approximate Words Written: 441,604

Published: Wayfarer, The Dreadful Tale of Prosper Redding

Wrote: Prosper 2, The Darkest Legacy, TDM short stories, half of a scrapped WIP (sigh), three proposals

Books read: 15 (I KNOW. It was suuuuuch a bad reading year for me. I was creatively blocked for a lot of this year, and I just didn't get as much enjoyment out of reading as I normally do. I also worked non-stop from April through the end of the year, so a lot of my reading time--right before bed--went to drafting instead.)

  1. What one event, big or small, are you going to tell your grandchildren about? Definitely visiting the set of The Darkest Minds movie and how overwhelming and wonderful it was. It felt like a true once-in-a-lifetime moment. 
  2. If you had to describe your 2017 in 3 words, what would they be? Productive, turbulent, introspective
  3. What new things did you discover about yourself? This year I discovered that negative thinking really does ripple through my whole life, and I can really spiral if I don't refocus my thoughts or recognize what's happening. That, and I have an a shockingly deep hatred of the character Kylo Ren??
  4. What single achievement are you most proud of? Finding and buying my house, which felt very adult of me. I feel very settled and love being home and working from home, but it was total madness getting packed, moved, unpacked, and buying what I needed before leaving on tour for twenty days.
  5. What was the best news you received? That my brother and his girlfriend were getting engaged. I'm so happy to gain another wonderful sister! I'm also deeply grateful that Wayfarer debuted at #1 on the New York Times list after struggling so much with that book.
  6. What was your favorite place that you visited in 2017? Definitely Barcelona, though I feel like Atlanta should get a runner-up mention. I visited Atlanta more this year than all the others years in my life combined! Second runner-up is Cabo San Lucas with my sister and mom. I accidentally booked us in a really nice hotel the last two nights (long story) and it was fun to have a a true treat yo'self moment. 
  7. Which of your personal qualities turned out to be the most helpful this year? Being a hard worker. This is a trait I inherited from both of my parents--I can sit and work for hours/days/months to meet my deadline obligations. My motto for this year was that if I agreed to the work, I wasn't allowed to complain about it. That served me really well in helping to reframe my thinking about my projects. 
  8. Who was your number one go-to person that you could always rely on? My mom for sure. The lady is a super hero.
  9. Which new skills did you learn? None, I'm just proud of surviving this year, Survey, so stop judging me. Wait, I take that back. I taught myself how to properly use a drill. SO THERE. (Now I want to take up archery just to have a better answer for this next year.)
  10. What, or who, are you most thankful for? No nuclear war, which feels like a very low bar.
  11. If someone wrote a book about your life in 2017, what kind of genre would it be? A comedy, love story, drama, film noir or something else? Oh, geeze... I wish I could say it was an adventure or love story, but I'm going with dramedy. 
  12. What was the most important lesson you learnt in 2017? You have to constantly fight for the things that matter most to you, and release the things (and people) that don't. 
  13. Which mental block(s) did you overcome? I've talked about this before, but I had a real creative crisis while working on Wayfarer and in the months after. It took almost the whole year to get back into a creative groove of being productive and having fun. I did a ton of work on two different projects that will never, ever see the light of day; I was initially really disheartened by what felt like two misfires, but I've decided I needed to have some free experimental time to try to clear out those creativity blocks. I also noticed that I'm much more comfortable with public speaking than I used to be, though I'm really not sure how that happened.
  14. What 5 people did you most enjoy spending time with? Honestly, this is too hard of a question--I would need to list way to more than five people, and all for different reasons. So I'm going big with my answer: every single reader who came to a talk, signing, or school visit. Writing can be incredibly isolating, but you guys give the work I do meaning. I'm so grateful for you and any time we get to spend together.
  15. What was your biggest break-through moment career-wise? I could take this question two different ways, I guess? On one hand, it's The Darkest Minds movie going into production. More personally, breaking through the creative block I mentioned above. It forced me to go back and analyze what works and doesn't work in my writing, and has helped me shake out a better way of going about drafting and editing. It felt like re-breaking a bone to reset it in a better way. I learned A LOT, even if there were moments of deep disillusionment and frustration along the way.
  16. How did your relationship to your family evolve? It's been so nice being home and getting to have family dinner with my family every Sunday. I definitely feel like I'm part of the team now that I live nearby, and less like a distant spectator. 
  17. What book or movie affected your life in a profound way? I read mostly non-fiction this year, so I'm going with a movie (I know, I know): Wonder Woman. It was by no means a perfect movie, but it was one of those films that reminded me how powerful storytelling can be. It was the perfect antidote for the cynicism that feels so deep-rooted lately. Diana was allowed to be flawed and have so many different sides to her, something that shouldn't be as rare as it is. I also recently rewatched the film Children of Men, which is one of the "spiritual" inspirations for The Darkest Minds (by that I mean, that film made me look at the world differently and made me want to write a book that had that kind of emotional impact). It was even more relevant in today's world, and I cried SO hard at the end. 
  18. What was your favorite compliment that you received this year? "Your brain is amazing and I want to live inside of it."
  19. What little things did you most enjoy during your day-to-day life? I really love having my routine of waking up, walking the dog, making coffee and breakfast, then getting to work. I know that sounds incredibly boring, but it's honestly so soothing and the consistency helps me to be that much more productive. I also enjoyed decorating my house for the holidays and occasionally buying myself flowers and making my own arrangements. 
  20. What cool things did you create this year? Books! Short stories! One thing this year reinforced was how important it is to do other creative work outside of writing, so I liked taking little breathers to decorate my house, create little videos, etc. I want to try needlepoint next year, or at least be able to mend clothing/sew buttons back on.
  21. What was your most common mental state this year (e.g. excited, curious, stressed)? Mostly stressed and exhausted. May through October was particularly rough.
  22. Was there anything you did for the very first time in your life this year? Visit a film set, be in a wedding, buy a house, visit Barcelona and Cabo San Lucas, publish a middle grade book... lots of little firsts, too, including becoming the caretaker of the trees in my yards.
  23. What was your favorite moment spent with your friends? First place: Julia's wedding in Connecticut. Second place: my very first writing retreat with author pals!
  24. What major goal did you lay the foundations for? One of my long term goals is to dabble in writing outside of YA. I'm really happy that I was able to release a MG, but I'd also like to try other formats... more on that soon!
  25. Which worries turned out to be completely unnecessary? My dog being carried off by a large bird of prey in my new backyard. I KNOW BUT HE'S ONLY SEVEN POUNDS IT COULD HAPPEN. 
  26. What experience would you love to do all over again? Definitely that Barcelona trip! There's so much more I want to see... and so much more delicious food I want to eat. 
  27. What was the best gift you received? Oh, gosh... I got some wonderful, meaningful things from my family this year (family photos, inherited furniture, etc.), but I'm obsessed with the plotting magnets that Sooz gave me for Christmas and know I'm going to get a ton of use out of them. Not to be a total sap, but I'm really grateful for the gift of friendship this year. The friends who helped me move into my house, the friends who kept my spirits up about work, the friends that widened my social circle... I really couldn't have gotten through this year without them.
  28. How did your overall outlook on life evolve? I feel much more settle and peaceful in my day-to-day life; I have a much better balance between work and living than I did before. I've gained a lot of confidence over the last two years by simply letting go of worrying about how other people see me and just having fun with the people I love, and I'm grateful for it. The political and social turmoil was terrifying and heartbreaking in turn, but it helped remind me how important it is to get involved, both on a local and national level. I want to volunteer for a political campaign next year. 
  29. What was the biggest problem you solved? When you put it that way... there really weren't big problems, so I feel like I didn't do enough! I had a huge plot issue with Prosper 2 that I've thankfully worked out before diving into edits on January 2nd. 
  30. What was the funniest moment of your year, one that still makes it hard not to burst out laughing when you think about it? This is such a small thing, but the band Papa Roach (of which I am not really a fan) randomly retweeted a tweet of mine and I still laugh about it. Also, the great escape that my sister, Mom, and I did from one hotel to another on our Mexico trip and the whirlwind of chaos it took to get everything packed in five minutes. (Again, this is a long story and it's one of those YOU HAD TO BE THERE type things, but we managed to make this event as dramatic as humanly possible, which isn't like us at all.)
  31. What purchase turned out to be the best decision ever? Generally speaking, the two vacations I took (I rarely take vacations, so this was huge) and my house/my house's office space, which has a window/natural light. Two more things: getting a dog door for Tennyson, which lets me sleep through the night uninterrupted, and this under eye concealer. I know this sounds like such a small thing, but I've always been extremely self-conscious about my dark under eye circles and this is the only thing that's really worked for me. 
  32. What one thing would you do differently and why? I really want to try to reclaim my weekends and not work on Saturday and Sunday, except on deadline crunches. Next year, if it's possible, I'm going to give myself mandatory time off from writing in order to get out more and make new friends, explore more of Arizona, and try to get in the habit of volunteering regularly again. I'm not sure that next year is the best one to try this with all of the movie stuff and deadlines, but we'll see. 
  33. What do you deserve a pat on the back for? Finishing The Darkest Legacy's first draft in the short amount of time I had to do it. 
  34. What activities made you lose track of time? Biking, chasing my dog around, meeting friends for dinner and drinks, being obsessed with updating my Letterfolk board in a possibly unhealthy way. 
  35. What did you think about more than anything else? Politics, society, how we got here and where we're going. Also, true crime. 
  36. What topics did you most enjoy learning about? I really learned so much more about our political and judicial systems this year even though I had considered myself pretty knowledgeable about them. I learned a lot about different true crime events as well, and must recommend this book to you as I had never heard about the horrifying Osage Murders before reading it. 
  37. What new habits did you cultivate? My new-old habit was getting back into cycling regularly, which has been great for my physical and mental health. Also getting into a routine of cleaning my house. Doing small things every day instead of waiting for a lot of work to pile up makes me feel like I have more control over the rest of my life. 
  38. What advice would you give your early-2017 self if you could? Don't be afraid to take time away from the world to do your work (you have to feed yourself and your dog), but always try to show up in any way you can for those who need help and support. 
  39. Did any parts of your self or your life do a complete 180 this year? Not this year, no...
  40. What or who had the biggest positive impact on your life this year? Honestly... spending less time online. This kills me to say because I love chatting with everyone, but it was so necessary for clearing my head and enjoying my day-to-day life more. I felt more productive and like I had significantly more time and energy to dedicate to family, friends, and causes that are important to me. Sometimes social media can feel performative and inauthentic, which can skew our perceptions of what matters if we're not careful. I'm trying to change the way I use my social media platforms in 2018; on Instagram, for example, I'm worrying less about curating the most devastatingly beautiful images and instead trying to respond more to comments and messages. 
Podcast Recommendations
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Listen up

PODCAST RECOMMENDATIONS

Oh man, the first thing you should know is that I just deleted the original intro to this post because it was from when I started drafting this on December 7th and everything in it was no longer relevant. WOW, Alex. You may have seen that I have some news (I need to update this site to reflect it!), and that news is actually the reason I wasn't able to keep my resolution to post twice a week. My deadline for The Darkest Legacy was so intense that my mom had to watch my dog on and off over the last two weeks of it so that I could have hours of endless, unbroken concentration to try to crank out the ending. It's definitely not my prettiest first draft, but I'm really proud of it and can't wait for you guys to read it! I'm so eager to get into edits for it that I've already started compiling a list of everything I want to tweak and change once I get my editorial letter back from my editors. 

In the meantime, I'm going to try to, you know, actually blog! I started this post at the beginning of December because I get requests all the time for something like this, and just didn't have time to finish it until I turned in my draft of TDL.  Enjoy! 

 

Okay--podcasts!

Over the last few years, I've become a hardcore podcast devotee. I listen to them while getting ready in the morning, while cleaning, while walking the dog, while driving, while showering... it's maybe a little ridiculous. While on tour this past September, I mentioned that I really love True Crime and that the bulk of the podcasts I listen to are True Crime/Murder-related. You'll definitely see that's true based on the list below! (I finally had to stop listening to a few of them at night because they were giving me nightmares and, as I always say, left me feeling like there was always a 50/50 chance I could solve a murder or be murdered at any given moment.) My writing section is the weakest because, um, I spend most of my days writing and thinking about writing so sometimes I need a break from that. 

Do you guys listen to any podcasts you love? Recommend me some in the comments below!

 

News 

I listen to these while I'm making my coffee and getting ready in the morning.

NYT's The Daily - The Daily does deeper dives into a few relevant news stories each episode, while still quickly highlighting the day's other news. I really appreciate the additional context they give to world events

NPR's Up First - I used to listen to Morning Edition and All Things Considered at my day job, and I really like this distilled format.

Embedded- This is another NPR podcast... I'm still not sure if it belongs here or in the Politics category. Embedded takes a really focused look at stories that matter in today's world. This season has been dedicated to studying all of the various pieces of Trump's world, from his business interests to the people in his family and inner circle. Episodes I recommend: The Police, The Bikers, The Immigrant

 

Pop Culture

Call Your Girlfriend - CYG is one of the very first podcasts I ever listened to, and I still love it. Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman have honest and hilarious discussions about the female body, pop culture, and politics from a feminist angle. They adhere to the concept of Shine Theory, and the show continues to put more and more emphasis on highlighting female (and female-identifying) politicians, artists, activists, and others who are moving and shaking society. Recent episodes I recommend: Feminist Dystopia, Political Bodies Pt 1 and pt 2, Bloody Prince Charles, Hillary

Pop Culture Happy Hour - PCHH is actually the very first podcast I got hooked on, thanks to one of my coworkers. I really love this gang and their take on all of the television, films, books, and comics you can handle. There have been a couple of episodes that taught me something about storytelling, or got me to look at an aspect of it in a different light. Recent episodes I recommend: Justice League, Tom Hanks, The Princess Bride

Song Exploder - I have to be honest with you guys... I don't know much in the way of music or songwriting, but I love this podcast and find it endlessly interesting. I think a lot of it is just that I relish getting to peek behind the curtain on creative work. This quick podcast invites artists to break down the concepts behind, and compositions of, their songs and lyrics. Recent episodes I recommend: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Goapele, Stranger Things,

Code Switch- I got turned onto Code Switch initially by simply loving Gene Demby and his many guest appearances on PCHH, and now I consider it one of the highlights of my week. Code Switch focuses on issues of identity and race. This podcast, more than any other, has expanded my view of the world and exposed me to both new ideas and some of the most insidious, subtle forms of racism that my privilege has kept me from recognizing in the past. Episodes I recommend: Disrespect to Miss-Respect, Puerto Rico, My Heart's Devotion, It's Getting (Dangerously) Hot in Here, The Unfinished Battle in the Capital of the Confederacy

 

Life + Advice

TED Radio Hour - This one is great for long car rides and walks. They identify TEDTalks that have related ideas and package them under one umbrella of an episode, which also includes deeper conversations between the TEDTalkers and the hosts. Recent episodes I recommend: Transparency, How Art Changes Us, Dialogue and Exchange

Dear Sugars - This is one of those podcasts that I find really soothing, even as the hosts take on tough topics. Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond must have two of the most calming radio voices ever to the point that I think they record in a soft-lit studio surrounded by candles, drinking tea, and smiling warmly at each other. If you're not familiar with the original Dear Sugar advice column, do yourself a favor and go back and read through its archive, which is full of empathetic advice and hard-won wisdom. I really enjoy hearing Cheryl and Steve give their personal advice and view of the tough situations that people are writing in about as much as I love the different guests they bring on to tackle the subjects with them. My all time favorite episode (and the one that turned me onto the podcast) is this one about about receiving criticism about your workRecent episodes I recommend: The Double Bind of Female Ambition, When Friendship Ends, In the Shadow of Damaged Parents, The Price of Our Dreams

The Way I Heard It with Mike Rowe - This podcast recommendation came via my future sister-in-law, Hayley! I debated whether or not to include this here or under my storytelling category, because I listen to it mostly for storytelling purposes (AND because he genuinely picks truly interesting stories). When I take in any story, my brain is operating on two different frequencies: writer and reader/listener, and I LOVE how Mike constructs his stories and trying to guess what the twist is or who the subject is before he reveals it at the end. These are really short, ten or so minutes, and I like to save up a few and listen to them while I'm driving. Recent episodes I recommend: Strange Bedfellows, How Soon They Forget, The Ride of His Life, Better Late Than Never

This American Life - TAL is possibly one of the most popular podcasts and radio programs in the country. The topics are so wide-ranging, human, and endlessly interesting. Some episodes are incredibly moving, others are laugh out loud funny, but they always feel authentic and real. They've actually compiled a list of favorite episodes, so I'll share that instead of trying to come up with one of my own.  

Radiolab - ... aaaaand Radiolab is the other program that's incredibly popular and covers a huge range of fascinating stories and topics. They describe themselves as a "radio show and podcast weaving stories and science into sound and music-rich documentaries," which is actually 1000% better than anything I could come up with for describing it. Recent episodes I recommendThe Girl Who Doesn't Exist, The Gondolier, The Ceremony, Breaking News

Invisibilia - What's that, Alex? ANOTHER NPR PODCAST?? Listen, I can't help myself. My podcast journey originated with listening to NPR every morning and they got me good. Invisibilia is different from the others in that it focuses on human behavior, beliefs, and the "unseen forces" that drive our lives. Like the others, each episode is really rich and amazing narrative storytelling. Episodes I recommendEmotions, The Culture Inside, True You

Oprah's Super Soul Conversations - These episodes are available on Podcast platforms or on her website as videos, just as a general FYI. I'm in no way a religious person, but I'm someone that has personal faith and a belief in the power of meditation, positive thinking, and community. I've found a lot of fantastic life advice here, and sometimes it's just nice to think about a big idea in a different way. Episodes I recommend: Joe BidenShauna NiequistSheryl Sandberg

 

True Crime

Dirty John - YES. It is THAT GOOD. And YES. YOU SHOULD LISTEN. I was basically screeching while listening to the last episode. The storytelling + the look into the human psyche is incredible.

My Favorite Murder - MFM is like a club at this point--I now decide who gets to be my friend by whether or not they know what the acronym SSDGM means. (Just kidding, but it is SO FUN to find other murderinos who listen!) Karen and Georgia put out two episodes a week, Monday is a shorter episode of "hometown murders" where listeners write in with stories and Thursday is the main, longer episode, where they tell one another about an interesting murder case. I always recommend making it a full-on listening project and starting at the beginning, but there are so many episodes now that... it's a big ask. I struggle to pick favorite episodes, but episode 85 also made me screech while listening to it while getting ready for a tour event this past September and now I'm convinced someone is living inside of my walls every time I hear a weird noise.

Last Podcast on the Left - LPotL covers all things horror, real and imagined. It's a bit more wide-ranging than MFM when it comes to topics. I like that they'll sometimes split a story up over a few episodes, which allows them to go a little bit deeper. Episodes I recommend: Episode 284: Fire in the Sky, Episodes 274-277 Oklahoma City, Episode 268: The Philadelphia Experiment

Sword & Scale - When I recommend S&S to people, I usually mention that it's not for the faint of heart. S&S, more than any other true crime podcast I listen to, is the one that usually leaves me the most unsettled and emotional. I think a lot of it is the fact that he'll use clips of the 911 calls in the case he's describing, and those are always an incredibly tough listen. Rather than recommend you a podcast episode that might leave you feeling incredibly unsettled, I recommend taking a look through the archive

Sworn - Sworn is a new podcast that delves into the legal cases and the emotional fallout of them. There are only a few episode sets so far, but I've enjoyed hearing more about the trials, which many true crime podcasts don't cover as extensively. Episodes I recommend: The Death of Cooper Harris (3 episodes)

Up and Vanished - Sworn and Up and Vanished have the same creative team behind them, only this one focuses on one case: the unsolved disappearance of Tara Grinstead eleven years ago. Each episode digs into a different aspect of the mystery, interviewing people of interest, revealing who Tara was as a person, and trying to track down new leads. 

Generation Why - Much like MFM, this is two friends (in this instance, dudes) discussing true crime cases, only their focus leans more toward unsolved mysteries and murders. As someone who needs to understand the rationale behind these crimes and some kind of resolution, many of these episodes are as heartbreaking as they are frustrating, because there are still so many questions left to be answered. Episodes I recommend: Stacey Castor, The Backpack Killer, The Acid Bath Murderer, The Co-Ed Killer, Ryan Widmer, The Springfield Three

True Crime Garage - TCG is, you guessed it, two friends discussing different murder and disappearance cases. Like LPotL, they go deep into each case and analyze it from many different sides, usually over several episodes. Recent episodes I recommend: Episodes 144-145: Kenneka Jenkins, Episodes 165-166: True East Murders, Episode 160 D'wan Sims

In the Dark - This is another podcast that focuses on one particular case (so far--season 2 next year will cover a different one), this one the abduction and murder of Jacob Wetterling in Minnesota 27 years ago. The podcast covers police mishandling of the case, broader cultural implications, and--amazingly enough--the case being solved as the podcast was in production.

Someone Knows Something - SKS is now in its third season, with each season covering a different unsolved case. Season 1 is centered on the disappearance of Adrien McNaughton, a five year-old boy who disappeared into the woods never to be seen again, season 2 on the disappearance of Sheryl Sheppard, and the current season, season 3, on the murder of Charles Moore and Henry Dee, two black teenagers who were murdered in 1964. 

Accused - One more true crime serialized podcast for you! I haven't listened to season 2 yet, but I thought season one, about the 1978 unsolved murder of Elizabeth Andes was really well done. If I was frustrated about the back and forth Who did it? and the two trials, I can only imagine how her family felt. 

Heaven's Gate - If you've had your fill of listening to podcasts about disappearances and murders, may I interest you in a podcast about the Heaven's Gate cult? I listened to this one over my Christmas break from work and was riveted by the origins and personalities behind the cult, as well as listening to the families who lost their loved ones after trying to save them from their fates. 

 

Politics/Government

Pod Save America - I'm a lifelong registered Democrat, and I tend to stay in my lane when it comes to political podcasts--just a word of warning if you're more conservative-leaning. While I think it's important to expose yourselves to other viewpoints, I also mostly listen to PSA while driving or walking my dog, and I don't enjoy feeling frustrated or angry while listening to either of those things, hence why I stay away from conservative podcasts for the most part. I've come to really like the Crooked Media crew and appreciate that they're making more strides to be more inclusive with the voices they bring on. I also really enjoy their interviews with politicians and activists, and think they're doing more and more to help try to engage the liberal-leaning base. 

Pod Save the World - I find foreign policy to be pretty intimidating to learn about, but I appreciate how well Tommy and his guests break down really important international issues in a way that's thought-provoking and easy to understand. 

Stay Tuned with Preet - While I wish Preet Bharara was still U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, I'm selfishly glad to get his insight on current events each week. He has a very fair, even-keeled point of view that feels much needed in a very partisan environment.

More Perfect - I am OBSESSED with this great Radiolab spin off about SCOTUS. It's helped me realize how little I know about this branch of our government and how many truly fascinating stories and cases I've never heard of. Episodes I recommend: Justice, Interrupted, The Architect, Citizens United, Object Anyway

The New Washington - This is a NYT podcast that's branched off from The Daily to feature longer interviews with important movers and shakers in Washington, DC.

 

History and Folklore

Lore - LORE!! I've been listening to this podcast nearly from its beginning and it's the highlight of my day whenever a new episode shows up in my feed. I love how Aaron constructs each story to maximize the storytelling potential and links real world fears to folklore and the supernatural. Some of these stories are creepier/scarier than others, but they're all fascinating. The episode Unboxed DEEPY unsettled me, omg. Episodes I recommend: Within the Walls, Missing the Point, In the Bag, The Mountain, When the Bow Breaks, All the Lovely Ladies, Broken Fingernails

The Dollop - You guys know I love my American History... well, I love that the Dollop still surprises me and covers topics I know nothing about, or comes at familiar stories from angles I've never investigated. The format is simple: Dave reads a story from history to Gareth, and now I'm seriously wondering if there's an unspoken podcast rule that you can only have two hosts. Recent episodes I recommend: The Great Diamond Hoax, The Caning of Sumner, Lincoln's Body, The Almost Founding Father

Revisionist History - Bless Malcolm Gladwell, who was clearly born for this podcasting thing. I was struggling to figure out how to describe this one, so I'm going to borrow from the podcast's actual description and say that it reinterprets something from the past, and that ranges from the Civil Rights movement to McDonald's french fries. Episodes I recommend: The Lady Vanishes, Hallelujah, The Foot Soldier of Birmingham, The King of Tears, McDonald's Broke My Heart

Smithsonian Sidedoor - I usually describe Smithsonian Sidedoor as being Smithsonian "deep cuts." They imagine it as digging deeper into the Smithsonian Institute's vaults and finding interesting stories half-lost to history. Both work! Episodes I recommend: The Many Lives of Owney the Dog, Masters of Disguise, Grandma Turned Me Into a Ghost, If These Bones Could Talk, You Do You

 

Storytelling

88 Cups of Tea - Yin Chang is a wonderful human and a fabulous interviewer--I had so much fun chatting with her on my episode (#shamelessplug), and I love how deep she gets into the creative process with each guest. 

First Draft Podcast - The truly awesome Sarah Enni does fabulous interviews with YA and MG authors that I think you guys will love, if you're not already listening! 

 

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Grateful
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Hi friends!

First--I just realized the last few posts had the comments switched off! Sorry about that. I used blogspot and Wordpress for so long that I sometimes forget Squarespace has different settings. In this instance, I have to turn them on before actually posting. Squarespace is so great in some ways... but, like, how do I add a sidebar to the blog? How do I post links to the years of archives? (This is probably a sign I should have hired an actual designer to do this site, eh?)

In any case, HAPPY THANKSGIVING to everyone celebrating today! As the year winds down, I've been doing a lot of reflecting on the good and bad of 2017. Some of the good: my brother got engaged to a wonderful lady! I bought a house! I took trips to places I had never been before! I published two books! Those are all incredible things. But I think that this was one of those rare years where things didn't quite balance out, and the bad just swamped everything else. A lot of it has to do with the constant stress with what's happening in domestic and global politics, but it also just feels like so many dark, ugly things in our society were exposed this year, and each month brought a new thing to be angry about. It became a year of necessary pain and confrontation, and I hope it means that we can find better ways forward in 2018. 

I had a year of bad anxiety; I find that what anxiety I have is pretty manageable, so it's not something I frequently talk about. That's probably part of the problem. So much of that anxiety is rooted in a fear of failure and disappointing others, which of course means that it's tied strongly to my work. I knew my anxiety was beginning to get out of hand when I couldn't even appreciate the successes I had professionally this year without that constant, creeping fear of What if it all goes away tomorrow? 

Recognizing those spiraling thoughts initiated the reset I'm in right now. It's included a Twitter and Tumblr detox, and removing a lot of extra voices I didn't really need in my life. I am SO GOOD at using those negative voices as road blocks. I plant them in my mind and let them creatively block me and trap me in this prison of uncertainty about the smallest storytelling decisions. My poor writer pals were constantly getting "What do you think about ____ or do you think ____ would be better?" type messages. That indecision really had me in its teeth.

I think I'm mostly through that now. What helped for me was going back through and really analyzing what did and didn't work in my most recent books, and taking it upon myself to figure out solutions and read craft books addressing those problems. What that indecision and anxiety ultimately boiled down to, I think, is a feeling that I wasn't in control of my stories or my career, and working on craft is a way to feel more in control of a process that had been largely intuitive for me. 

I'm 22 chapters into a ~35 chapter book and feeling good about it--or at least less agonized over the things I know aren't working quite right yet and I need a critique partner's opinion on. The deadline I set for myself was December 1st, but that was always a little bit crazy. This is going to be a long book (somewhere around 145k, which is par for the course with my other YAs) and because of Prosper touring + promotion + book 2 drafting, I only really got to start working on it in October. I've written around 70k words this month alone, which was only possible by addressing the aforementioned anxiety.

As I've gotten older, I feel like I've mellowed out so much. What was going on with my writing was really reflective of what was going on with my life in general. My truths have been simplified so much over the last four or five years. I'm thankful for that. 

This April marked the fifth anniversary of my dad's death. I look back on it now and see what a radical shift that was in my outlook on everything. I don't talk about this very much, both because my dad was a very private person and because the way he suffered at the end of his life and how quickly his health deteriorated was incredibly traumatic. I'm still processing it, and how it's rippled out through all of the choices I've made, and the anxieties I can't seem to fully let go of. (In reality, that What if it all goes away tomorrow? is really What if it all goes away and I can't support my family if something were to happen?)

The other day I went on an email deleting spree, finally clearing out my inbox of emails I'd had since 2008. I cringed and rolled my eyes at myself so many times, and finally understood what a slow, deep current maturity is. You really have to earn it along with hindsight. Because all of these radical highs and lows, I have so much less patience for drama that doesn't really matter in the end. I don't want to waste my time with people who aren't true friends, or on stories I don't love with my whole heart. The clarity that comes in knowing that our time on this planet is limited is another one of those painful processes that we all go through, but ultimately helps us change and move forward.  

Anyway, I'm sorry for rambling. I guess what I'm trying to say is that this year, I'm working hard to be grateful for those painful things out of my control, and for the growth I've undergone because of it. I hope you all have a peaceful holiday, or even just a lovely, calm weekend with those you love best. 

 

Revisiting Old Favorites

Lately, all I've wanted to do is go back and revisit old favorites. I have no idea how or why this started--actually, no, I take that back! I know exactly when: November 9, 2016, when I sat down in front of the TV and started rewatching The West Wing from the beginning, because I literally needed to delude myself into thinking that the world was still sane, and everything would be fine. And, really, what I've discovered is this: old favorites are pop culture comfort food, and I have basically not stopped snacking since last fall. 

It's not even just TV (though I'll get back to that in a second)--I've been in the worst reading funk, too. This is embarrassing to admit, but I've only been able to finish a few of the books I've started since January. I keep skipping between them, reading a few chapters of each at a time. I think it's partly because of a toxic combination of generalized stress and deadline angst (and therefore guilt about reading and not working on my own stuff). For whatever reason, I can't get hooked. 

So, in an attempt to try to keep my creative well filled with some kind of fiction, I've gone back to reading old favorites, exploring some manga I left behind when I graduated college, I've been listening to CDs I haven't touched since high school, and I've started taking on marathon TV projects.

Not to brag, but... I am a sloth QUEEN. My mom and I marathoned TV shows and movies before that was a Netflix phenomenon (and, you know, socially acceptable) during summer breaks when i was home from college. This came in the form of rented DVD sets or, if we were desperate and Hollywood Video didn't have a series or season (RIP Hollywood Video), actually going out and buying them from Best Buy (RIP Best Buy's formerly amazing DVD selection). I like to think of it as determination and drive to see a job done and done well... but I really just like sitting still for twelve hours sipping tea and eating a feast of pizza.

My latest veg-out project has been...

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ALIAS! (This disguise is ICONIC, right?)

Oh man, this show. I have so many random memories attached to it. My intense crush on Agent Vaughn, for one thing. But this was the show that convinced me I could potentially work for the CIA one day (as an analyst, because let's be real, my exercise-induced asthma and low tolerance for high stakes situations would take me out of the field). One of the reasons I ended up going to college on the east coast/in the DC region was because I asked my dad where CIA agents went to college and he gamely guessed Georgetown. In this same conversation he also told me I could never do drugs if I wanted to work for the CIA because they'd ask me about it in a lie detector test, and I still, to this day, have never done drugs. (His drug-free strategy was a long game. Props to you, Dad.)

I'll be the first to admit the show really went off the rails in the later seasons. It's actually a really good storytelling lesson: the deeper you get into the mythology no one really understands or cares about, the more confusing it becomes and the harder it is to connect to the characters (aka the reason most people are watching). The first three seasons are so grounded in universal themes of wanting to gain control of your life, family, struggling for balance and love; you still get degrees of that later, to a lesser extent. I love the human story of ALIAS more than anything.

The first thing that really struck me during this rewatch is how confident and competent Sydney is. If you don't know a thing about ALIAS, here are the basics: Sydney is a grad student who works for a covert branch of what she thinks is the CIA, called SD-6. As you could probably guess from my set-up, it is not, in fact, affiliated with the CIA, and she's unwittingly been working for the bad guys all along. When she confesses what she does to her finance, SD-6 has him killed and sets her on a path of revenge: she begins working as a double agent for the real CIA to take down SD-6 and the rest of the shadowy Alliance. Oh, and her dad (played by the fabulous Victor Garber!) is also a double agent. And her mom is... well, you'll have to watch. ;) 

Back to Syd, though, it's amazing to me how much nuance I missed when I first watched the show. Back then, I was focused on the literal asskicking that was happening every episode (and holy smokes does Jennifer Garner SO MUCH ASS), I missed the subtler notes: that she's extremely good at her job, is valued by her shady af spy organization for her skills, and Sydney knows it. In fact, in the pilot, she calls Vaughn (her CIA handler and Spy Cutie (TM)) out for wasting her time. She goes through a horrible time with, you know, the dead fiancee and discovering her dad has been a spy this whole time, and also the whole part where SD-6 tried to assassinate her, too, when it seemed like she was trying to get out. But Sydney never loses that sense of self-possession. It's even visible in how she walks:

Spy strut!

Another thing I noticed on this rewatch was how hard Syd worked to keep the balance between her "real" life and her covert life, and how much she struggled with the fact she was lying to her friends. Actually, on a whole, I was significantly less invested in her love life this time around--maybe because knowing how it ends robbed a lot of that unresolved tension? The family and friendship dynamics were so much more compelling to me, likely because they provided much more storytelling tension and because, well, Sydney very clearly doesn't need a dude to feel fulfilled, even a Spy Cutie (TM). 

Her friendship with Francie is so wonderful and genuine--I actually forgot how much I loved it and how supportive they are of each other. But, um, here's why I think I forgot: that Francie twist in season 2. Super problematic on the rewatch and robs the series of one of its only true female friendships (arrrghhh). Maybe the best thing you can say about it is that it gave Allison Doren, Francie's actress, another interesting role to play...?

You know what's even worse, though? They really missed the mark with how they represent some of the non-Western cultures. And, worse than that? They have Sydney in brownface and yellowface a few times while in disguise. Y-I-K-E-S. That never sat well with me, even when I was younger, and I STILL don't know why they felt like they had to do it, other than FOR SPY DISGUISE REASONS which... find another way, people. It was bad then, but in today's world, it was somehow even more jarring.

I don't think we should forgive our old favorites for flaws, especially big ones like these. I certainly have messed up out of ignorance in my own work. But I think it's become more important than ever to call them out and learn from them so as not to repeat them moving forward. The last decade of my life has taught me a lot--and I mean A LOT--about privilege and these deeply ingrained storytelling tendencies to default on white, and how some storytelling decisions can come at the expense of non-white characters. 

Anyway, I could go on and on. Life experience really becomes a lens through which we view all of this pop culture, so I'm curious to see what other shows will or won't hold up on rewatch, or how differently I'll interpret them. Have you guys revisited any of your old favorites recently?

On that note, I'll leave with with another recently rediscovered favorite I can't stop listening to: 

 

 

Hello again
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Hi there.

I was thinking the other day that it's been years--like, six--since I kept up a regular blog. 

Once social media kicked into high gear, it felt like a lot of us lost the patience to sit down and write out posts the way that we used to. It was easier to chat with friends on Twitter, share photos on Instagram, and sites like Tumblr really nurtured the fandom corners of our souls. Or, at least, that's what happened with me. Slowly but surely (real talk: as my deadlines grew tighter and while I still had a day job) my updates trickled down to just giving news on books and events.

Lately I've been missing having a quiet corner of the web to call my own. Maybe it's because there are so many voices online, and more and more it feels like everyone is shouting at each other on social (with good reason, but still--I don't know about you guys, but stress is contagious for me, and I have a hard time shaking it once it worms its way into my head). I don't really want to retreat from the online world, especially since the stakes are so high and it's more important than ever to stand up for others and for what you believe in. But, to be honest, I'm struggling a bit with that balance between staying engaged and with keeping my creativity up.

The strain of spending 24/7 worrying about the future really saps the well dry, so to speak, so while I'll never back down from amplifying voices and joining the political and social conversations online, I've also been feeling like I need another outlet to help decompress and get me back into the routine of regular writing. You might remember from one of my recent newsletters that I've realized it's easier for me to keep up my pace if I don't take long breaks between projects and drafts. That's still very much true. But I also think it helps to engage in more writing outside of stories, so here we are. 

I'm thinking that maybe, without any real fanfare or regularly directing people here, I could use this blog as a way to connect with some of you in a slightly more meaningful way. I am very easily overwhelmed, I'll admit that. I struggle to keep up with Instagram comments and Twitter messages, and, to my deep, deep shame, I have hundreds of emails from readers I haven't tackled or given a response to. I'm hoping it's easier to stay in touch with you guys here, and actually chat via comments.

The plan is to keep you up to date on my books and writing, but also to dive into other things I really love. For instance, I just moved into a new house and I'm having the best time nesting and getting everything in order. I'm trying to figure out landscaping, too, even though I have whatever is the opposite of a green thumb and Arizona tends to roast everything I try to grow. Movies, books I've read, true crime (bless you @ everyone on the Prosper tour who let me go on and on about true crime and Dateline), history... let's just see how this all shakes out. My only real goal is to try to post at least three times a week, but we'll see! I might have to work up to that again. Build that blogging muscle!

Anyway, thanks for reading. Talk soon! ❤️

The One About This Summer

Hello! Welcome back to what will hopefully be regular, real blogging from yours truly. :) My biggest news is that I left my day job in publishing early in June and have been writing full time for about a month and a half now. And I mean writing full time. One of the things I've come to realize about myself is that I'm a bit of a workaholic and have a hard time stopping when it comes to editing and revising when I'm in the swing of things. I'm definitely trying to develop more of a schedule, but it's been difficult because of quick deadline turnarounds, having to hunt for an apartment, having to pack, etc.

IN THE AFTERLIGHT Updates

- I just turned in what's hopefully my last draft before it goes to copyediting(!) and from there it's onto first pass pages and then, by September, glorious hardcover for an October 28th release. I know a lot of people were disappointed by the move from September to October, but I'm grateful my publisher's scheduling worked out in favor of me being able to spend a few extra weeks perfecting the book for you guys.

- I am going on tour in October! I don't have the final dates and locations, though my understanding is that it's largely east coast events. Will update you guys when I have a bit more information

- Speaking of events, I'll be a YALLFest again this year! I hope to see you guys there!

 

Life Updates

- I'm moving! I'm staying in the city, but I'm moving up a few blocks to a little apartment of my own. I'm very excited, but it'll mean being without the internet for a while. In case you're wondering where I've gotten off to.

- I'm going on vacation! It's been six months(!!) since I last saw my family, so I'm VERY excited. My mom is flying to NYC and then we're going to Paris to visit my younger brother together.

- One of the biggest reasons I'm so excited to write full time is that I now have time to really be in touch with you guys. By popular request, I've set up a mailbox you can use to send me notes and whatnot. I have some goodies to send back to you, too.

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- Speaking of moving, I've moved my tumblr from alexbracken.tumblr to alexandrabracken.tumblr.com. This is mostly because I got tired of having alexbracken be a secondary account, which complicated things when I tried to post directly from Instagram. Please follow me over there if you haven't already!