Monday, May 11, 2015

Sunday, December 28, 2014

One New Year's Resolution

Photo credit: Kelly ODonnell
First, let me tell you about our big feat earlier this month.

I've wanted to be a foster mom for a long time, but that's not in the cards right now. Being a single mom with a crazy schedule isn't going to work. But every few months, I find myself drifting back to the "waiting child" websites and the encouraging "you don't have to be perfect to be a foster parent!" campaigns. I read My Orange Duffel Bag by Sam Bracken and my soul sister Echo Garrett, about Sam's journey from abuse and homelessness to success.

I learned about the dismal statistics for kids in foster care-- how most kids are just dumped when they turn 18, with nowhere to go and few people to help them. They often wind up in homeless shelters, and more than half of the young men wind up in prison at some point. (In fact, 70 percent of the prison population has been in foster care.) Less than 5 percent of them graduate from college, and their rates of teen pregnancy are staggering. It's all just depressing.

And for a while, I struggled with guilt about not being able to do anything. I had a bit of tunnel vision-- thinking that the only way to make a difference was by actually becoming a foster parent. But then I began noticing organizations that are meant to improve the lives of kids and teens in foster care-- and those who are aging out-- and it opened up my mind to the idea that there were lots of ways to help.

The organization I latched onto the most was Together We Rise, a nonprofit started by a college student who had watched his cousin enter the system. I loved their Facebook posts, which not only highlighted the problems, but also empowered people to help with the solutions. They point out some of the biggest difficulties about foster care (such as that kids aging out rarely have a car or other form of transportation) and then offer up ways to help (in that case, building bikes to donate).

They highlighted the case of one young woman who was aging out and wanted to go to college... but she didn't have a computer, so the organization did a quick drive to raise the money to buy her a laptop. It felt so good to be able to contribute something toward that!

Then they started an initiative to take foster kids to Disneyland: 200 kids who had been separated from their siblings while in foster care. Not only did the kids get a free trip and park tickets, but they even got a little spending money for souvenirs. And I realized... I can help. Even if all I have to give is $10, that $10 can live on indefinitely in the form of a little souvenir pin or stuffed animal or whatever, to remind that child that someone cares.

Because that's what it's all about, isn't it?

We all do better as human beings when we feel that someone cares.

So my involvement started with donating a few dollars here and there to various campaigns as I could. I admired the photos they would post of corporations hosting special events, and then one day it occurred to me: Why not me? I was waiting for someone else to Do Something so I could just join in, but then I realized that I'm someone.

Not only am I someone, but I'm someone who wants to show her awesome daughter that this is a good world and that helping others is a joyful responsibility of ours.

With that in mind, I volunteered to run an event for Together We Rise in my community: building "Sweet Cases." Most kids entering foster care are given two garbage bags to carry their belongings (which are usually meager). How lame is that? What message does that send? Together We Rise instead has a program where people can buy and decorate good-quality duffel bags for the kids, and then include a few comfort items (like a teddy bear and coloring book) and essentials (a toothbrushing kit and blanket).

I put feelers out online, to see if parents from my daughter's school district might join in. Oh, yes. They sure would.

I pestered and badgered people until we managed to break the all-time record for a community build... we raised enough money to decorate and fill 140 duffel bags. SO COOL.

After that, it was a matter of setting a date, finding a location, collecting the money, scooping up a good friend for a late-night trip to Michael's and convincing the manager to let us use far too many coupons, commandeering my living room for a week, and holding the event-- which we did this month. Let me show you what it was like...

First, you need a really good helper to unload the boxes.

Then you need a great space for the event. (Thanks, UUFSB!)

Then you need some seriously cute Boy Scouts. This is not optional.

And voila! Together, you all paint designs on these cool duffel bags and stuff them with good stuff.
Here's one of my bags!
A bit of the aftermath...

After the event, my aunt and I drove the bags over to Little Flower Children and Family Services (yep, it took a few trips!). They not only provide foster placements and training for foster parents, but also have residential facilities for teens with medical and behavioral problems, as well as mother-and-child facilities for teen moms in foster care. They do a ton of good. And of course, as I researched them, I learned what else they need... sure, some tangible items like outerwear and toys for the holidays, but also lots of volunteers in various capacities-- such as answering phones, writing newsletters, painting a mural in one of the group homes, and mentoring.

My mind raced with the many ways I could be of use. Do I know how to answer a phone? YES, I DO. Can I write the heck out of a newsletter? YES, I CAN. Could I paint a mural? DID YOU SEE MY FISH UP THERE? Mentoring? THINK OF THE SUBVERSIVE IDEAS I COULD INFLICT ON THOSE KIDS!

I think sometimes it's overwhelming to realize how much you can do, and then get stuck in that abyss of possibility and forget to act. And so that's my New Year's Resolution: to be more useful. To act on my usefulness.

Want to join me?


Monday, September 08, 2014

Never Ever Give Up: Two For One!

This is pretty sweet... Barnes & Noble is going to be featuring Never Ever Give Up: The Inspiring Story of Jessie and Her JoyJars on their "New Release" tables in their big stores from September 9-22, and they're also recommending it as a Top Teen Pick! (Thanks, Barnes & Noble!) That's pretty huge for us-- and to celebrate, Jessie's dad Erik is offering an amazing deal:

Take a picture of the book at Barnes & Noble. Buy a copy and send him the picture. (I don't want to list his email address here and subject him to spammers, so instead I'll tell you to write to him through the website: In return, now through the 22nd, he will send you a signed copy FREE! So you get to keep one and give one to a friend.

If you want to make sure it's available near you, check Barnes & Noble here:

Next to the "Add to Bag" button is a link that says "Pick Up in Store." Click that and it'll ask for your zip code to check the inventory of stores near you. 

If we can sell a lot of copies between now and the 22nd, we'll have a good shot of making bestseller lists, which would be amazing for the foundation and a lifelong dream of mine. Please help us by forwarding this along and sharing this great offer... because, really, you get a great book, your friend gets a great book, you help kids with cancer... IT DOESN'T GET BETTER THAN THAT! ;)

*I'd also like to thank our publisher, Zondervan. Most people probably aren't aware of this, but authors know-- it costs the publishers money to get books onto those front tables and endcaps at big bookstore chains. They call it "co-op" marketing. Basically, the bookstore has to agree that the book is worth putting there and has a good chance of being a big seller, and the publisher has to pay for the placement. So it's a pretty nice compliment for an author when your book ends up there-- means that both the publisher and the bookstore had to agree that the book has big potential!


Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Childhood Cancer Month: Jessie Rees

One of my high school friends, Cliff Gibbons, went through a tough cancer battle a couple of years ago. He became more in tune with other people who were struggling, too, and realized that he couldn't even imagine going through it as a kid.

He posted a link on Facebook to a fan page for Jessie Rees, an 11-year-old who'd recently been diagnosed with a brain tumor. She and her dad kept up the page, frequently updating it to let people know what she was up to, how treatments were going, and asking for prayers. I became a fan of hers and followed her journey.

The amazing thing about it was that Jessie immediately wanted to do something positive. She saw that there was a floor full of kids at her hospital (Children's Hospital of Orange County) who didn't go home in between treatments the way she did. So she asked her parents, "How can we help them?"

They were too caught up in the fact that their own daughter was just starting cancer treatments to give much of an answer-- they were focused on her survival. But Jessie didn't wait for them to come up with an idea; she went home that day, sat in the kitchen, and began decorating lunch bags with get well messages and stickers. Then she began putting all her Beanie Babies in the bags.

This is the video that gave me goosebumps and made me fall in love with Jessie:

Her dad spoke to the nurses and found out that it was fine for them to bring in gifts for the other kids, but everything had to be brand new (to avoid spreading germs to kids with compromised immune systems). That was the day JoyJars were born.

Jessie, along with members of her swim team, church, school, and community, began assembling plastic jars full of fun little toys to give out to kids battling cancer, to spread her message: Never, Ever Give up (NEGU).

Jessie lived for 10 months after her diagnosis. It was heartbreaking to read that she had moved to heaven, and I expected the JoyJars movement to end with her. Months later, I was inspired by the way her father carried on her legacy. It's not just that he continued sending out the jars; it became bigger and bigger, expanding to include other types of help for families of kids with cancer, going international with the foundation, holding a beautiful gala every year... Now, nearly 100,000 kids have received JoyJars across the world.

I reached out to Erik to ask if he'd thought about writing a book about Jessie. I said I would love to help. My timing was perfect; he indeed did want to write a book, but felt it was just too close to home to be able to get perspective. We worked on it together, with an excellent editor (Sandra Vander Zicht). All of us were so proud of how it turned out.

Part of the book's proceeds go to the Jessie Rees Foundation, to fund more JoyJars and other services for kids going through cancer treatment.

The book was released yesterday-- appropriately, because September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. Never Ever Give Up is now in bookstores and online, both in paperback and Kindle format. I have such high hopes that it'll become a bestseller and that the foundation will be able to help even more kids.

I hope you'll buy a copy for yourself or anyone else who could use a dose of inspiration today.

 Never Ever Give Up


Tuesday, June 17, 2014

#YesAllWomen and Me

I'm an infrequent Tweeter. Don't spend much time on Twitter, but I recently read about the #YesAllWomen movement and realized I had way too much to add to it. I chose one story I thought I could tell in 140 characters, posted it, and forgot about it.

The story is this: I was on a crowded train in Boston. I was about 18. There were no seats left, so I held onto a strap. An Asian man moved over to stand right behind me. I thought that was odd... there were other places to stand. Even right next to me would have been fine, but why did he need to stand right behind me? Then I felt him pressing up against me.

At first I thought it must have been an accident. I was profoundly uncomfortable, but said nothing. I gave him the benefit of the doubt, thinking maybe he was oblivious. Then he shifted and pressed into me harder. I still thought he might be oblivious, but I moved over. He followed me and did it again.

Now I was terrified. I looked around me on the train, trying to make eye contact with anyone. I thought about slapping him or kicking him or even just screaming, but I was too paralyzed with fear. No one would look at me. It seemed to me that people were intentionally looking away. This predated our obsession with cell phones, so it wasn't that everyone was preoccupied... people were just staring off into space. There were no workers around, so I just left the train at the next (unfamiliar) stop and walked home.

When I got there, I beat myself up. Why didn't I DO anything? Why didn't I SAY anything? I didn't want to talk to anyone that night. I was too busy being mad at myself for letting this guy get away with it, because I knew it meant he would do it to someone else.

I was brought up to be unfailingly polite. I'd been taught to always respect adults and never to embarrass anyone. But by this time in my life, I knew better-- I knew that politeness could get you kidnapped, raped, beat up, killed. 

It had been such a strange experience on the train that I didn't even know how to process it until it was over. I really was naive enough to think that the man was just not realizing that he was pressed up against me in a sexual way-- until he followed me after I moved. Then I knew it was no mistake. I was disturbed enough that I went online looking for stories, to see if this had happened to others. What I found out was that this wasn't a rare occurrence-- it was an epidemic in some areas of the world. There was even a word for it:


Any doubt I had about whether or not it was intentional now vanished for good. This was a crime and men were getting away with it because they counted on women being meek, like I was.

Had this been my only bad experience with men, I would count myself very lucky. It was unnerving, but mild compared to many other experiences. If you've read this blog before, you probably know that I was kidnapped and raped by a serial rapist when I was 10 years old. I took a self-defense class after that, when I was 14, but the sensei kept making comments about my breasts. My first boyfriend was physically and verbally abusive and told me what I could and could not wear and who I could talk to. He beat up any boys he found talking to me in class. I can't count how many times he got suspended from school and I had to covertly apologize to whoever he beat up. He threatened to kill my whole family if I ever left him, and I believed him. The only reason I got away was that he eventually went into the military.

With one notable exception, all the men I dated after that were nice guys. Mostly really nice guys. I never had a thing for "bad boys"-- the first guy just fooled me. Most of my friends were male; I never grew to think that all men (or even most men) were jerks.

I'm not the meek and polite kid I was once anymore, nor am I naive. Having a daughter has made me much more aware of the people around us. When a strange man leered at her in a store and asked how old she was, I didn't make polite conversation and assume his best intentions as I might have before. I walked away. Who knows? Maybe he was a kindly old man and I misinterpreted the "leering." But that's not my concern anymore. I will gladly risk being a little rude in the interest of keeping my daughter safe.

But now let me tell you about the reaction on Twitter.

I didn't know about any of this until today. I'm not sure why, but I never got any notifications of responses. Probably for the best. But today, a friend pointed me to this article:

It made me go back and read some of the responses to my original Tweet:

Jun 1
You are aware that trains have seats so these things can't happen right?

Jun 1
is that why you love train so much?

It wasn't my fault, it was a bumpy ride.

oh please, what were you doin when he was pressing himself against you? huh? enjoying yourself?

Yes it's hard to imagine strangers on a train aren't always checking you out. The nerve of the populace not being glued 2 you

I would have watched the whole thing and probably touched myself later.

One man spoke up on my behalf and wrote this:

touched yourself later?I can only say this. You make me sad you really do. I hope your mother reads your feed.

 This was the response:

I did indeed, while imagining this very scenario. Stop white knighting you already know she puts out

I'm not sure where to even start, but I'll just address that last one... the man ascertained from my profile that I'm a single mom. Therefore, because I had sex with the man who was my husband and it resulted in a child, I "put out" and now any man is allowed to sexually assault me. No, really, that's the logic.

Where do we go from here? 

It saddens me that the #YesAllWomen tag that was supposed to help others see what women go through on a regular basis just to stay safe has turned out this way... it's like shining a light on cockroaches. What it's done is to show exactly why we need this movement-- because there ARE lots of other Elliott Rodgers in the world, who feel entitled to have sex with any women they want. Who brag about how many women they've raped. Who get off on intimidating and victimizing us, and then insulting any man who would stand up for us. "White knighting?" Yes, thank you-- we need lots more of those. 

Let's be clear: It is not okay to sexually assault anyone at any time under any circumstances.

No matter what they're wearing. No matter what they're doing. No matter what you think of their life choices. No matter who you are, who they are, who your parents are, or how entitled you feel. 

It's not okay to blame the victim for being victimized.

No matter what they're wearing. No matter what they're doing. No matter what you think of their life choices. No matter who you are, who they are, who your parents are, or how entitled you feel.

I'm not normally one to link profanity-laden tirades, but I'll make an exception here. If all witnesses took a stand like this, don't you think rape culture would end?


Tuesday, June 03, 2014

When "Free Range Parenting" Goes Too Far

I just read an article on Salon that bothered me a lot.

It's here: The Day I Left My Son In the Car.

In short, the writer tried to run an errand with her 4-year-old, but he didn't want to go into the store, so she left him in the car for 5 minutes or so while she went in to shop.

A bystander saw this, recorded it, and called police. The writer spends much of the article minimizing her actions: it wasn't hot, it was just a quick errand, all her friends are doing it, it's no big deal. She's very mad at the person who called police. And the comments mostly mirror her thoughts-- no big deal, no real risk.

In fact, the comment that set me off was this one: "The risk of anything bad happening in those 5 minutes was so absolutely miniscule to not be worth mentioning."

I'm here as a reminder of that miniscule risk.

I was kidnapped and raped by a serial rapist when I was 10 years old. Maybe others don't think it's worth mentioning, but it was quite not fun when it happened to me.

Every time I see parents getting all huffy about how they should be allowed to let their kids roam free, walk to school, and so on, all I can think is this: You never think it's going to happen to you until it happens to you.

Earlier this year, a baby was kidnapped when his mother left him unattended in a car while she went in to a store. Here's a teenage girl who was abducted on her way to school this April. Leiby Kletsky was 8 when he was murdered and dismembered walking home from camp for the first time. Etan Patz has been missing since he was 6 years old because he was allowed to walk two blocks to school alone. This 2-month old was kidnapped from a car last month while her mother was unloading groceries. This 5-year-old girl was kidnapped from her front yard, where she'd been left unattended, last year.

We are not just statistics. We exist. Far too many of us. Learn from us so that these things don't happen to your children. It's not some self-righteous feminist movement to let kids roam free... it's lazy parenting that needs to stop.


Monday, June 02, 2014

The Care and Feeding of Your Ghostwriter

People sometimes say to me, "It must be SO HARD having someone else get credit for your writing!" But it's not, really. Just about all of my clients have remained my friends, and I'm very happy to see them succeed. And maybe I've just worked with really nice people, but the majority of them not only do give me a shared cover credit (by So and So with Jenna Glatzer), but also make it a point to thank me in the acknowledgments and mention me in interviews when they can. I feel I get plenty of credit most of the time. (If you're wondering who usually doesn't want to acknowledge my role, I'll tell you: doctors. I guess they worry it puts their expertise in question.)

What I usually write are memoirs and true crime stories, and here's what really IS hard: dialogue.

Often, the toughest part of writing someone else's story is trying to come up with dialogue that will help the reader get a sense of everyone's voice and personality. But interviewees rarely want to tell me what a conversation went like because they're worried they're not saying it just right, or misremembering some of it. But listen, if you're working with a ghostwriter, understand this: No one expects the dialogue to be exact. None of us have perfect memories. Readers don't need exact dialogue unless it's some key part of the story where words really count, like a crime confession or someone's last words.

A memoir without dialogue is really boring. Readers need breaks from paragraphs of exposition, and dialogue keeps things lively. So keep that in mind when a ghostwriter interviews you: Try to give more than a few words when the writer asks, "What was that conversation like?" Whatever you remember will be helpful. We don't know these people and their voices; we need you to give us a sense of it.

Here are some other ways you can help your ghostwriter:

-Don't cancel interviews at the last minute. Of course we know that emergencies happen, but understand that most of us plan out our work schedules based around interviews.

-Write out a timeline. If your story is intricate, give the writer a page or two of background showing the important dates and events.

-Don't ask your writer to interview every person you've ever met. I'm not sure why this is, but there is a tendency among people whose books I've written to want me to talk to dozens of people... the book is in your voice. It's your memories. There are often a few key people who the ghostwriter should talk to, to get a fuller picture-- people who may remember things that you've forgotten, or who can put things in context. But keep a limit on this, knowing that the writer is going to spend time interviewing and transcribing each call. She probably doesn't need to talk to your 4th grade softball coach.

-Remember that she doesn't necessarily know your industry/acronyms/slang. I've had clients who've said things like, "So I went to the RBA to get my t-drat from the Magman," and I'm not even sure where to start the question... "Wait, you went to the who-what-where now?" When in doubt, spell it out.

-If you've written diaries, letters, or notes of any kind relating to your story, we want to read them. Don't be afraid to send us things-- we're not going to judge your writing skills. We're pretty glad you're not professional writers... that's why we get to have jobs.

-Don't use speakerphone. One of the most frustating experiences in ghostwriting is when I go to transcribe an interview and can't make out half of what the person said... because the phone connection is bad, the person is using speakerphone or a bad Bluetooth device, or because the person mumbles.

-Slow down. The other difficult thing about transcribing is speed: Whether the writer transcribes with a voice recognition program or by typing, we still need time between phrases. It really helps when interviewees speak clearly and slowly.

-Don't expect us to follow feedback from multiple people. As your writer, I expect to get editing notes from you and your editor (and your agent during the book proposal stage). Anyone beyond that is too many people. I can't be expected to take feedback from your brother, your cousin, your best friend, and your former English teacher. Everyone is going to have an opinion, but you have to trust that your writer and editor are the professionals and that we're going to have your best interest and the book's best interest at heart.

...And that's about it! We ghostwriters aren't that hard to please. Most of us know that we have pretty awesome jobs, after all.