Anne R. Allen, author interview, book review, Helen Hemphill, Hope Clark, Ray Bradbury, Tracy Bilen, What She Left Behind, Writing

A Review, An Interview, and a Giveaway – What She Left Behind by Tracy Bilen

Thought for the day: 
 “You must write every single day of your life… You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads.” 
 ~ Ray Bradbury
 (We will miss you, Ray Bradbury!!)
Some gifts for my writer friends. The following are links I think are worth your time. 
I probably mentioned this site a year ago or so, but it bears repeating. Hope Clark offers the best free e-newsletters for writers listing grants, contests, markets, publishers, agents, articles. To go to this site click HERE and click on the Newsletters tab. Check it out.
I read a blog by Anne R. Allen about blogging recently and think it’s one of the most rational approaches to blogging ever. Click HERE to read it.
The WINNER of the autographed copy of Runaround from my last posting is Helen – not Helen Hemphill the author, but Helen the commenter. I will be sending that out to you right away, Helen. Congratulations! If any of you missed the review of two of Helen the author’s wonderful books, click HERE.
Now on to the main post. I read a terrific new YA last week. It’s one of those books I carried everywhere with me – hoping for a long line at the post office so I could read a few pages while doing my errands, hoping to catch a red light now and then so I could finish another page or two, holing up in my study and, WHEN I SHOULD BE WRITING MY OWN DAMN BOOK, I shut the door and knocked off a couple of chapters before getting to work. The book is What She Left Behind by Tracy Bilen, and this is a very impressive debut novel.
Sara has been waiting for her mom to come to her senses and for the two of them to leave Sara’s father. He has become a total psycho since Sara’s brother, Matt, killed himself. And now the day they will leave has finally arrived. Sara packs her duffle and leaves it under the bed as her mother instructs her. She goes off to school as if it is any other day, planning to meet her mother at the Dairy Dream at lunch time. This just happens to also be the day that the high school hottie, Alex, pays attention to Sara for the very first time. In fact, more than paying attention, he seems downright interested in her. It’s hard to respond well in these circumstances when you truly believe, as Sara does, that she will never see Alex again.
Mom doesn’t show up. Sara misses the rest of her classes waiting – something that is just not like her – and finally gives up and goes home. She finds everything she had packed is unpacked and put back exactly where it belongs. She tries over and over to call and text her mom, but gets no response. When her father comes home, he tells Sara her mother has gone on a business trip and will be gone a week. He continues to act as if everything is normal – in his psycho kind of normal – which includes acting as if his dead son is still around and late for dinner!
“My dad takes another puff of his cigarette, then flips on the TV and doesn’t say another word – he just sits there and smokes. I want to wave my hands in front of his face and make him tell me more, but he would probably break my arm. So instead I back away.”
In a series of well-crafted flashbacks, we come to know how controlling and abusive Sara’s father has been for a very long time, telling her mother in front of her that she had better not ever even think of leaving – or else. They can’t go to the police. Dad is an ex-cop and has the local cops completely in his pocket. We discover how Sara didn’t only lose her brother, but several friendships as well, leaving her without much of a support system. She does, however, have one good friend, Zach, who is really always there for her. As time goes along, Sara comes to believe something terrible has happened to her mother. It’s up to her to find out. Oh, and all this time she continues to fall in love with Alex.
Tracy Bilen
There is a terrific mystery to be solved by Sara braided tightly with a love story and the great back story of Sara’s family life. This is all deftly handled by Tracy Bilen’s fine writing. This book is one you will want to read. It’s rich and absolutely enthralling. You can win a copy! Just keep on reading to the end to find out how. (Oh, heck. I’ll tell you. It’s the usual way. See the last paragraph.)
Now I’m happy to report I was able to ask Tracy a few questions about her book and her writing, so sit back, relax, and read what she has to say.
I read on another blog (click HERE to read that blog) that you came to this story from an image in your mind of a girl, a suitcase, and a field, and you had to figure out what happened. How did you discover your fictional characters? Are they based on real people?
Finding my characters has always been a slow process for me. I find I start writing with the plot foremost in my mind and drag the characters along for a bit. Then as I get further along, I go back and start adding character details, until by the end of the whole process, the characters feel like real people to me. The characters aren’t based on anyone…of course, as you’re writing, you naturally tend to talk about things that you like and know about, so like Sara, I used to play the shrunken clarinet and I like Ritz Bits, but there are also lots of things about her that aren’t like me at all!
Your writing has such a great, natural flow to it. Do you spend a lot of time planning your writing – outlining and such – or is it a much more organic process for you?
Thank you! When I wrote What She Left Behind I didn’t outline the first draft, I just wrote. Of course, I kept a few things in my mind as far as where I wanted the story to go. After I finished the first draft I wrote down a list of everything that happened in order (so I guess most people would call that an outline!) Then as I revised, I used the “list” to help me reorder events and add to them. I used this same process for the first two “practice” (i.e. unpublished) novels that I wrote. Now as I am beginning to work on new projects I find myself “outlining” a lot sooner (after the first 30 pages or so) – actually coming up with the specific plot details before I write them (imagine that!)
Writing can be a lonely business. Do you work with critique groups or critique partners?
My critique partners have played a huge role in my success. I had tried a couple of “open to anyone” critique groups at bookstores / libraries, but didn’t find the right fit that way. Then at SCBWI (Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) conferences I met some great friends, a couple of whom I exchange manuscripts with via e-mail, and a couple of others with whom I meet with on a regular basis. This feedback, from people writing for the same age group and with similar professional goals, has really made a difference for me.
How was your journey to publication? Long, short, how many rejections? Did you have an agent represent the book or did you sell it on your own? If you had an agent, how did you go about finding an agent?
While it took me writing a few books before I got to the one that would sell, the actual query process for What She Left Behind was in some respects, rather fun. I used querytracker.net to keep track of my submissions (it’s free). I sent out about 50 e-mail queries (sent out in batches of 5 or 6) and received partial or full requests from about a fifth of them. The whole process took about eight months. I say that the process was in some ways fun, because although there was plenty of rejection, there were also the partial and full requests to keep my spirits up. It was always an adventure reading e-mail during that period!
Your main character, Sara, loves to read horror novels. What were your favorite books when you were growing up? Did those books inspire you to write?
My absolute favorites when I was quite young were Trixie Beldon mysteries (discovered in my grandmother’s adventure filled attic) and Anne of Green Gables. Trixie Beldon gave me my love of mysteries (while I consider What She Left Behind to be more of a thriller, it does have mystery elements). Anne of Green Gables was inspiring because Anne is a struggling author herself and I adored her eventual love, Gilbert (just like I adore Alex, the guy Sara falls in love with!) When I was a teen, I loved books by Lois Duncan and Caroline Cooney. Sara’s love of horror was inspired by the movie version of Stephen King’s Cujo which I saw when I was way too young, and his Misery which my mom MADE me read when I was in high school. I don’t think I’ve forgiven her yet!
What is the last book you read?
Right now I’m reading Slide by fellow Apocalypsie Jill Hathaway. It’s about a girl who “slides” into the bodies of others. It’s awesome!
What’s next for you?
I’m currently working on another YA thriller.
What advice would you pass along to those of us who haven’t gotten that first book published?
Try to stop writing. (I know, you’re ready to kill me now – how is that inspiring??!). But I’m serious, in a way. Throughout my writing journey, I tried to stop (why did I want to publish a book anyway?) But I couldn’t stop. I always came back to it. So if you try and stop and you just can’t, you’ll know that you were meant to do it (and that your mind won’t give you any peace if you don’t). So then, go with it. Keep writing. Keep querying. Write something new while you’re querying (I wrote What She Left Behindwhile I was querying a book that didn’t sell). Join the professional organizations for your genre. Find a critique group with people who write in the same genre or for the same age-group. And don’t give up. Think back to when you were looking for your first (serious) job. It may have seemed impossible at first. You kept trying different things until you hit upon something that worked. And now when you look back on in, it doesn’t seem that bad. The publishing process is probably going to take you way longer than it took you to find that first job. But it’s worth it. And you can do it!
Thank you for so generously sharing your time and thoughts. Is there anything I didn’t ask about that you’d like to tell us?

Thanks for such fun questions! I hope you’ll take a peek at the book trailer for WhatShe Left Behind. I just love how the words hide behind the trees at the end! Click HERE to see the book trailer. It’s terrific. If you don’t already want to read the book, you will after seeing this.

If you would like to receive a gently-read, autographed copy of What She Left Behind, I have good news. Tracy was kind enough to send one to me to read and then give away. Just leave a comment on this post, and I will put your name in a drawing. If you would like to have your name in the hat more than once, post a link on Facebook or on your blog, and let me know. I will put your name in once for each. But please leave a comment no matter what. I’d love to hear from you. Remember, if you have trouble leaving a comment, click on the title of the post and it will give you just this post with a comments section on the bottom. Also, if you haven’t signed up by email, please do. Just look in the upper right-hand corner of this page, pop your email address in, and you will receive an email each time I put up a new post. Your information will not be shared with anyone.

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