Author Archives: Michelle Ray

About Michelle Ray

I'm a middle school teacher, a mom, a writer, and a Shakespeare fan. My three novels are Falling for Hamlet, Mac/Beth, and Much Ado About Something. FFHamlet inspired the TV series The Royals on E!.

Looking Back (and a Fond Farewell)

It was the best of years.

It was the worst of years.

It was the year my first book came out.

It was the year I had multiple ideas rejected.

It was a year when I was told I was brilliant.

It was a year when I was told I was not.

It was a year when I got my first fan email.

It was a year when I planned my first book launch.

It was a year when my friends and students read my work.

And many of them loved it.

It was a year when I made my first video for a publisher.

It was a year when I did my first book signings.

It was a year when I was interviewed in newspapers and on TV as a writer.

It was a year when I got a good review in The New York Times.

It was a year I felt confident saying, “I’m a writer.”

On balance, there was more good than bad. There have been bumps and heartache along the way, and I have said more than once, “I’m going to stop writing,” and been told, “No. You’re too good.” So I kept writing. But not because someone flattered me. Because I couldn’t help myself. When I was studying theater in college, I remember people saying, “Only stick with it if there’s nothing else you can do. Only do it if you can’t help yourself.” Those in the know wanted the outsider to know that the life of the artist was that uncertain. That fraught. That harrowing. So I made a decision. There was something else I could do. I became a teacher. But the creative urge was still there, and so I wrote. And I will keep doing that since I can’t help myself. I really can’t. I love telling stories. I love the act of writing them down. Of getting people to see what I see.

And so we live on hope. All people do, but artists face this daily. A writer spends her time hoping an idea will come. Hoping the idea will bloom into something worthy. Hoping the work will be well received. Hoping people will want more.

A new year rolls in, and I’ve stopped to take stock. To ask myself, “Was it all worth it? Is there anything else I’d rather do with my time?” And the answer is yes and no. Yes, it was worth it. More that I could have dreamed despite disappointment. And no, this is how I wish to spend my time. Until the answers change, I will go on writing.

Because this year brought so many good times.

And next year might be better.

[*Note: This is my last post with EMU’s Debuts as my debut was some time ago. I leave this magnificent, supportive group better for having been a part of it, and looking forward to whatever comes next.]

Advertisements

12 Comments

Filed under Book signing, Celebrations, Farewell, Happiness, rejection and success, Satisfaction, Thankfulness, Writing and Life

Thanks and Wishes (a tiny post for the busy holiday season)

As the year comes to a close, I’ve decided to take stock of all that’s right (write?), and all that’s yet to come. And so, a brief list of my literary fortune and dreams.

What I’m THANKFUL for:

having a book published.

readers who like my book and email me to tell me so.

a team at Little, Brown interested in my work and in selling it.

having editors that make great suggestions and feed me yummy meals when I visit NYC.

loving my agent.

Erin Murphy Literary Agency, with its supportive stable of staff and writers.

EMU’s Debuts.

a best friend who reads my drafts.

friends, family, and strangers who came to my signings all summer and fall.

a husband who tells me not to give up.

kids who think having an author mom is cool.

colleagues who ask about my writing life.

my imagination.

What I WISH for:

that my new ideas become books.

that I find more time to write.

the ability to ignore “the suck monkey”. (see 11/23 post)

inspiration.

patience.

6 Comments

Filed under Agents, Book Promotion, Book signing, Celebrations, Colleagues, Editor, Happiness, Satisfaction, Thankfulness, Writing and Life

What Makes a Writer a Writer? And What’s It Worth?

I didn’t call myself a writer until I got a contract. Even then, it took a long time for me to say, “I’m a writer” without choking on my spit a little.

What was I? A teacher. Yes. Mom. Sure. Wife. Yep. Shakespeare lover. Forsooth. (Well, apparently, “forsooth” implies an ironic ‘yes,’ but you know what I mean.) But to call myself a writer seemed odd.

To be honest, I’ve been a storyteller all my life – directing plays, making up stories in my head, describing my teaching experiences in all their crazy glory at dinner parties. But I was not a kid who kept a journal full of stories and poems, telling people that one day I would be published. Heck, even my diary had years-long gaps in it. A writer I was not. Until I was.

What changed? I started writing my stories down.

But at that point (in my mind), I was writ-ING, but not a write-R.

A hard part of the journey to becoming a writer-R was giving myself permission to take the time to write when I wasn’t getting paid. How does one justify ignoring children, a spouse, great movies on cable, time with friends, and a couch begging to be napped on, all in the HOPE that someone MIGHT want to buy what I’m writing? Hard to say. And yet, that hope was enough to keep me going for years.

And then I got paid. And it made it real. And it made the sacrifice seem worth it. And it made me feel like I could actually call myself a writer, not just someone who writes. Because the check said somebody thought I was good enough at it. Some people will say I should do it for the art, and there’s some truth to that, but for me (and I’m not saying it’s the same for everyone), the contract validated my dreams and efforts.

So how does one waiting for a first or second or third break keep out of what Mike alluded-to: The Pit of Despair? I guess it depends. I’m competitive, so I want to get another contract. I’m a storyteller, so I want people to read the tales I’m thinking up. I’ve got stories in my head that I find pretty darn entertaining, and getting them on paper is a kick. And I’ve got supportive family and friends who tell me to keep going. They loved my work before I had an agent or a publisher, and they will love me even if I never get published again.

My stories will be in my brain no matter what. When I put them on paper, I’m writing. And for now, I feel like a writer.

6 Comments

Filed under Celebrations, rejection and success, Satisfaction, Writing, Writing and Life

Green Eyed Literary Monster

I get jealous. I admit it. When I see a notice about someone’s book deal, I’m jealous. When someone wins a writing award, I’m jealous. When someone gets a good review, I’m jealous. When a book I hate sells really well and is getting all kids of press, I’m jealous. (Also annoyed.) And when someone gets a starred review from a publication that was mean about my work, I’m more than jealous. I’m sort of a crazed green-eyed literary monster.

But . . . why?

Why am I jealous? I have no right to be. None at all.

A few weeks ago, I wrote an entry about “Dayainu” (Hebrew for “It would have been enough”) about how each step of my writing journey has been incredible and has surpassed expectations. I never expected to be published. Never expected to love my agent, to be so encouraged by my editor, to be supported by my publisher, to have friends celebrate whole-heartedly with me, for readers to ask what I’m working on next because they want to read more.

So how can I be jealous of others?

I could go with my I’m-a-flawed-human-being theory and be angry with myself. But I think it’s just plain human nature.

Years ago I read Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird, a magnificently funny, validating book about writing and writers. So much of it rang true, and it gave me the courage to try getting published again after I’d been rejected by yet another round of agents. And then I got to the last section of the book, which talked about writer jealousy. I didn’t get it. She talked about the secret glee at seeing another writer’s books be remaindered, the anxiety of one’s publishing experience, and about the fleeting nature of the joy of one’s own success. I thought to myself, “If I every get published, I will be joyful. I would never be petty. And I will never, never forget how lucky I am.”

Ha.

Now listen, I know I’m lucky. And I am happy for other writers when they find success. And I read reviews to see what might be interesting to pick up next. And when I hit “like” on a Facebook announcement about a friend’s deal or positive review, I do it out of happiness and the desire to support. Seriously, I do.

So I will try to forgive myself for my all-too-human and really-unproductive-and-unearned-jealousy. I will try. And I will fail. But I will try again. Just like when I’m writing.

11 Comments

Filed under Celebrations, Controversy, Happiness, jealousy, Satisfaction, Writing and Life

Too Much Skin? (Or . . . Book Covers Gone Wild!)

Old skirt from the ARC. This is NOT the cover of my book!

My cover continues to make people talk. This is fantastic. And a little annoying. Fantastic because it sure does catch the eye. Annoying because most of the time, people who are upset by it are talking about the WRONG cover! In a previous entry, “Judging My Book By Its Cover,” I explained that when the ARC came out, some people were offended by the girl’s skirt length, so the skirt was altered. I don’t mind. I mean, I like it both ways, but if the new one will make people more likely to recommend the book, then longer is better. The annoying thing is that the old image continues to be used in blogs that chatter endlessly about how they couldn’t possibly read my book because of the skirt. Apparently, too much leg in a photo = a crappy book. Um, okay. But to reiterate, they’re looking at the wrong cover. Sigh.

New longer skirt. Still cute. Less upsetting?

I consider my cover intriguing and sexy and terrific. And bit of “buyers beware.” This ain’t your grandmother’s Hamlet. Innocent? Not my Ophelia. Prude? Nope. Coy? You must be kidding. It’s a clear message to anyone looking for a stodgy re-telling of Hamlet to move on. It’s also clear to parents that the content is for older kids. I’m glad about this. As a parent and a teacher, I like to know what a book might be offering up.

FALLING FOR HAMLET was reviewed by the New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/21/books/review/shakespeare-and-austen-updated.html?_r=2&src=tp (I’m so excited by this that I had to fit it in . . . but my name dropping, “yay me” moment really does have a point.) The article talked in large part about girls, romance, and sex. It commended my frank approach to the subject. But the funny thing is, there’s not a lot of sex in my book. The body count vs. scenes of intimacy is tipped way on the side of blood and gore. Even funnier is that an entire paragraph of the Times article focuses on a scene about sex that my editor and I discussed dropping. Well, I asked about cutting it multiple times. I wrote it, but writing about something so real and intimate made me uncomfortable. See, I, like much of America, am more at ease with murder and trauma than sex. And yet, a girl is much more likely to have to negotiate a physical relationship with her boyfriend than deal with a boyfriend who’s possibly insane and definitely a murderer. Not once, however, did I ask my editor if the body count was too high or offer to change the plot based on there being too much violence. Sad, but true.

Even my blog-mates got in on the short skirt fun/controversy for my launch!

So back to the cover. Today on the street, I bet there were at least a couple of girls who had skirts shorter than Ophelia’s originalcover skirt. In real life, people probably didn’t point or gasp or try to cover her up. Tween and teen girls watch pop stars on TV who are nearly naked shaking their moneymakers, and we accept it. Why is a book so very different? Why do we accept in real life that which we do not in print? And why is book violence fine but a healthy sexual relationship is not? I don’t know.

What I do know is my cover has people talking. And I love that. So grab my book for the cover. Stay for the story.

11 Comments

Filed under Controversy, Editing and Revising, Editor, Reviews

I (Won’t Let Myself) Get Satisfaction

Michael & Ariella at my signing. See? Happy!

“You look happy,” said Michael Fiore after my very first book signing.

“I am. I’m trying to let myself feel happy and not undermine it,” I answered.

“Looks good on ya,” he replied.

True story.

Now, Michael has known me a long time. He knows I worry about the bird flu, flat tires, getting lost, being a good parent, eating too much ice cream, having frizzy hair, being an interesting teacher, and on and on.

If you only know me from pictures, you see I smile big. If you know me a little, you know I laugh a lot. If you know me well, you know that I worry. And laugh. Worry. Laugh. Worry. Laugh. It’s exhausting.

Being published has been one of the best things in my life, yet it’s been fraught with emotional challenges. Will I perform well at my book signing? Will the next book measure up? Was FALLING FOR HAMLET even any good? Am I getting enough publicity for my book? Do I sound stupid in interviews? Am I polite enough in my emails? Too needy? Too meek? Too bold? Too rambly? It’s like the Berenstain Bears book with Papa worrying while picking out a hat: “Too silly, too frilly, too beady, too bumpy, too leafy, too lumpy.” Or maybe I’m being Hamlet-y: flip-flopping emotions and tons of questions.

So my mission: focus on the joy. Because this IS a joyful time. And it might be a once-in-a-lifetime event. With my husband’s help, I’m getting better at it. He keeps telling me to “take the victory lap,” he makes me visit my books in bookstores, and he reminds me that this is beyond what I’d thought possible.

For the Jews in the crowd, taking a moment to be thankful for each piece of a story might bring to mind Passover and the repetition of Dayenu. Dayenu basically translates into, “It would have been enough.” I’ve begun to go through the publishing experience and to mentally celebrate each moment that would have been enough.

I wrote a book. Dayenu.

My friends enjoyed the emailed version. Dayenu.

I found an agent. Dayenu.

She found an editor who liked what I’d written. Dayenu.

The editor and her team helped make it a better book. Dayenu.

It got a hot cover. Dayenu.

Barnes and Noble put it on their shelves. Dayenu.

People are buying the book. Dayenu.

Readers like it. Dayenu.

People email me to say they were moved. Dayenu.

Teens are asking for a sequel and what’s coming next. Dayenu.

The editors want to work with me again. Dayenu.

The book was positively reviewed in Family Circle Magazine. Dayenu.

I had articles done about my work in Bethesda Magazine and The Washington Post. Dayenu.

I’ve gotten to know incredible writers from my agency and beyond. Dayenu.

My friends and family are happy for me. Dayenu.

They come to my book signings and send lovely messages of support. Dayenu.

And because it bears repeating . . .

I. Have. A. Book. Published. Dayenu.

It has all been beyond my wildest dreams. Truly. So when I focus on each moment, when I take in the lucky joy of it all, when I quiet the “what ifs” and the worries, I am happy.

14 Comments

Filed under Book signing, Celebrations, Happiness, Writing and Life

Dark? Light? Stuck in the Middle

I wish I wrote sweet books. I wish I could think of something innocent enough for middle graders. I wish my brain thought in picture books. But I am too verbose to write short tales. I do not write in rhyme. I cannot look at a cupcake or a tiara or a key or a toy and turn it into a gripping tale. I truly admire those who do, but alas, I am not that writer.

I like stories about emotionally tortured young women. Gals who love guys that sort of are and sort of aren’t good for them. Ladies whose behavior gets them the wrong kind of attention. I like to write about girls who are not exactly bad but not exactly good. I like to write about heartache and loss, as well as romance and discovery. My characters laugh and joke and cry and scream. They make good choices and terrible ones. But they are not extreme because I don’t relate to that. The life experiences upon which I draw, and my comfort level for what I’m having characters do, lies somewhere in the middle.

So is my fiction dark and edgy? Light and round? Um . . . not either, I guess.

My photo from Paris. I always love a mix of dark and light.

For a while, I wondered if my work needed to be darker and edgier. When I was trying to find an agent, many represented books about suicidal teens, cutters, drug addicts, and anorexics. Now my source material, Hamlet, isn’t exactly cheery stuff, but my take on it wouldn’t be considered “edgy.” I began to think I might need to write something edgier, but my mind couldn’t go to those extremes. Neither do a lot of teen readers’, I imagine.

I teach middle school, and after fourteen years in the classroom, I know that some kids’ lives can be messed up. Like curl your toes, churn your stomach awful. I also know that some kids’ lives are happy and peaceful. And yet most kids fall somewhere in between. So does their taste.

Some of my students like stories where people are in peril. Some have begged me to find a book where no one dies. (Beginning in 5th grade, this is much harder than you might suppose.) Some like fantasy. Some like non-fiction. Some like romance. Some think kissing is gross. And you know what? There are books for all of them.

It’s easy to think that the only fiction around is what’s on the best seller’s list or what is featured in chain bookstores. [The fact that there’s a whole section called “Paranormal Romance” still amazes me.] But scratch below that surface and there is great variety in literature. Earlier, I mentioned the phrase “round and light,” and I took that from Jennifer Bertman’s blog (http://writerjenn.blogspot.com).  In answer to the supposition that there was nothing but dark and edgy fiction out there, she began asking for suggestions that are not dark and edgy. The list is already large and still growing.

The original article about YA fiction certainly hit a nerve. I think it taps into our fears as writers about what we are putting out there for teens to read, and it makes us ask ourselves if we are doing right by them. At least it did for me. But the thing is: my line in the sands of morality is in a different place than another writer’s. And a parent’s line and a teen’s line will likely be in other places, as well. You cannot please everyone. But you have to be true to yourself and write what you don’t mind putting out there for teens (and tweens and adults) to consume. I cannot write all sweet and light, and I tend not to write all horrific and crushing. I write (and most kids will read) things that fall somewhere in the middle.

6 Comments

Filed under Agents, Writing

It’s About Time

With just over 1 month left before Falling for Hamlet hits the shelves, I thought I’d deal with the issue of time. I started writing the book in 2007 and finished my last revisions in 2010. As I close in on the end of this journey, I reflected on the mathematics of the writing.

And so with no further ado (or much ado), here are the numbers:

23 years on Earth before I told anyone I made up stories

1 year after that I started writing down the stories

3 more years before I told friends I wrote

2 more years before I showed people anything I’d written

11 years spent on my first manuscript, which is still not quite right

4 years ago I saw the Hamlet that inspired my story

3 months spent on first draft of Ophelia’s tale

1 ½ years polishing and getting feedback

17 months searching for an agent

3 times (at least) I gave up trying to find an agent

1 definite decision to stop writing

5 minute inspirational conversation with musician-friend who convinced me to try again

2 months after finding agent, manuscript sold (unusual, but true. Yay, Joan)

0 times my agent and I have met in person

1 great conversation with editor (Yay, Alvina) that told me she was the right one for me

3 lunches with fabulous editor and her team in NYC

1 week of stressing before being able to face my first round of post-contact revisions

1 box full of drafts, which led to not printing anymore (go green!)

1,000 hours telling myself I couldn’t do it

1,001 hours of husband saying I could

81 titles thrown around before it became Falling for Hamlet

1 redesign of skirt for cover

96,941 words in final manuscript

21 months between acceptance of manuscript to date of publication

80+ times friends have asked, “Isn’t your book out yet?”

1 month left before publication (YAY!)

1 very excited writer who never thought she’d be an author

14 Comments

Filed under Agents, Celebrations, cover art, Editing and Revising, Editor, Publishers and Editors, rejection and success, Writing, Writing and Life

A Novel About Lies & Murder – Let’s Party!

Ah, the book launch. When somebody first said the words, I immediately thought of somebody strapping a rocket to my novel and sending it into space. I’m not dumb enough to think that’s what it actually was, but I did have to ask my editor to define it. She explained that it’s a party for my friends and family to celebrate the debut of my book, and that some authors choose to have it in a public place where strangers can attend. And, apparently, there are sometimes theme-related snacks and activities.

My first instinct was to skip the whole thing. Seriously. I’m an odd duck for many reasons, but here’s a biggie: while I relish the idea of attention, when it comes time to plan a party centered around myself, I get a little uneasy. For my own wedding, I mentioned hiring someone to wear a gorilla suit so no one would see me walking down the aisle. It’s ironic because I can talk to anyone on a movie line, I make speeches, I teach, and I direct theater. But this kind of thing? Yikes.

Both Alvina (my editor) and my husband encouraged me to do it, saying that celebrating this moment is important and I would regret not doing it. Probably true. The book was years in the making and my friends and family are super charged up about the whole thing. So I’ll get past my butterflies and throw a party.

Now for the theme. See, my awesome agency (Erin Murphy Literary) has a bulletin board where authors post questions, great news, and bad news. We chatter and offer support. So I asked the group for suggestions. They’re children’s book writers, and many of them write adorable stories. This means their themes have involved decorated cookies, coloring contests, thematically colored punch, and fun music. Sounds sweet, BUT . . .

Skull cake? Skull cookies? Even Hamlet is uncertain (shocker)

My book is based on Hamlet, which it’s about revenge, madness, and murder. I don’t see any theme cakes that wouldn’t terrify my children.

And then Jeannie Mobley (author of the upcoming Magic Carp and fellow EMU Debut-er) sent me a list of ideas that still has me laughing:

1. You have to serve Danishes
2. All the other food has to be rotten
2. ONE goblet of punch has poison in it–which one is it? We will know
by the end of the book launch.
3. I know you have given Ophelia a better story line, but all the same
you could walk around among your guests singing snippets of song and
handing out flowers with weird meanings (be sure to practice your vacant
look)
4. You can play a variation of pin the tail on the donkey, only using
rapiers instead of pins, and an old man behind a curtain instead of a donkey
And of course,
5. You can give a prize to the most inappropriately short skirt worn to
the event.

See how easy this is to plan?

My husband and my guy friends were especially keen on the short skirt contest. I think we might go with Danishes and coffee (who doesn’t like pastry?), a little reading aloud (my heart stops at the thought), book signing (yay), and hanging out with people I love (very good).

Maybe inspiration will hit before July and I’ll still come up with something fun. Or I could just stab everyone and go home. I’ll keep you posted!

15 Comments

Filed under Celebrations, Editor

Judging My Book By Its Cover

I judge books by their cover all the time. I admit it. My hands reach out for the mysterious, the beautiful, the intriguing. I often remember covers better than titles, and find myself looking at books I’m not even interested in if the cover grabs me. Considering the amount of effort that goes into cover design, the publishing world knows we all do this, too.

I’m no expert, but I’ve noticed covers have changed over time. They seem more eye-catching, and more frequently use photographs and bright colors. My daughter, a reluctant, yet excellent reader, wanted to tell me all about this new book she found, one she finally was enjoying: The Babysitter’s Club (the old series repackaged). Well, mommy-teacher-writer lady just so happened to have a whole box of the series in the garage and pulled them out, thrilled to have reading material at the ready that she might like. She took one look at the old covers from the early 90s — hand drawn girls with scrunchies in their hair – and wrinkled her nose. “But why?” I asked, though I didn’t need to. It was the cover.

And so, as my first novel was set for release, one thing I most anticipated and feared was the cover design. My questions were many: Would I like it? Would I have a say? Who would do it? Would it catch the eye of the readers?  The answers, I’m happy to say, were: yes, sort of, someone amazing, and you bet.

My editor included me in parts of the process, and explained the rationales for many decisions. Early on, I was asked for thoughts on the cover, my inspirations. Not having been involved in any of the meetings on design, I don’t know how much these images were considered, but the final product captures some of these themes, so I was happy.

Millais' Ophelia

One was Millais’ Ophelia, which I’ve loved since I saw it in high school. Is she dead? Is she not? Each flower is so delicate, as is she, floating down the stream, not fighting against her fate. Very much not like the Ophelia I had written, and yet this image is quite well known. The other was a grainy black-and-white still from the movie Walk the Line. Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix are walking down the street with their arms around each other looking back as if someone has called out and snapped the picture, intruding on their privacy. Thematically, this stuck in my head in connection with FALLING FOR HAMLET. The characters I wrote live public lives, even the things they wish were private. Their relationship is scrutinized and captured during official interviews, on surveillance cameras, and by passers-by “lucky” enough to be near them as their world falls apart.

Over the summer, I was sent a series of possibilities, and was thrilled that the two the team at Little, Brown liked the most were the ones I preferred, too. One I loved had a floating Ophelia, but it wasn’t used because she seemed like she might be dead – which we know from page one isn’t the fate of my gal. Additionally, it wasn’t modern enough, which, though the image was stunning, made a lot of sense. The other one I thought was cool was the black, white, and red one used in the end, which captures the eye and is pretty darn sexy. In fact, some people found it a bit too much so (but more on that in a moment). Along the way, I was sent various versions where proportion and focus were changed, and found it amazing that small changes altered the result so dramatically.

So we come to the controversy of the skirt. My guy friends loooooove the skirt. Independently, a few of them actually took my laptop and tipped it, like we were in Harry Potter world and they’d be able to catch a glimpse of her underwear. Boys! However, word from some librarians and teachers was that it was too short, and that they wouldn’t recommend it based on this fact. So the designer lengthened it and removed some shadow. It’s still short, mind you, but less scandalous, it would seem.

Me very happy when I first held the ARC in my hands

Will this cover sell the book? I don’t know. Would it make me pick it up in a store? Heck yeah. Does it capture some of what I wanted to say in writing about an independent, strong, and yes, sexy Ophelia? To me it sure does. There’s a lot that has gone on (gathering blurbs, which section of the text to use, how the summary was written) that I don’t know about. But in the end, it all turned out great, which is quite a gift for my first book.

13 Comments

Filed under cover art