Author Archives: Jan Gangsei

Put down those arms… and strike a pose!

So, yesterday I did something kind of fun — I finally got an official “author chickenauthorsheadshot.”

I know, I probably should have done this a couple of years ago. But I’m weirdly superstitious at times. And I never really wanted to get one until I actually needed it.

(As it turns out, this may not be the best strategy. Especially when your agent asks for a high res photo and the only recent ones you have are your Facebook profile pictures and a collection of selfies from the Pitbull concert you went to Saturday.)

Luckily, my very talented photographer friend Jennifer Smetek was available on short notice (and also kindly didn’t insist I pose with a pimp cane).

Instead, she had the cool idea to do our photo shoot at the Workhouse Arts Center, a former prison site in Lorton, Virginia. Lots of neat distressed brick, overgrown vines, inmate-painted murals, etc., to use as backdrops. I’d highly recommend it. (Heck, even if you don’t need a headshot, it’s worth checking out — in addition to now housing dozens of working artists, the site has a fascinating history, including the (in)famous imprisonment and force-feeding of more than 70 hunger-striking suffragists in the early 1900s.)

Anyway, after spending an hour and a half posing all over the former prison grounds (and thankfully not getting kicked out… or jailed), I made a few stray observations about what to do should you ever find yourself standing awkwardly in front of a camera:

  • Put your arms down… Yeah, it’s really hard to know what to do with your hands when there’s a camera in your face. I found myself desperate for some pockets to stuff mine in. Or maybe just the opportunity to detach my arms for a few minutes. They felt weirdly in the way. All. The. Time. I spent a lot of time swinging them around like a monkey until I settled on crossing them, keeping them at my sides or putting them behind my back. Having something to lean on helps, too. But for Pete’s sake, don’t look like you’re trying to flap yourself airborne.
  • Put your true self forward. Me — I cannot pull off a serious face. At. All. While some people look great all thoughtful and brooding, I look like I just sat in something cold and wet. Or was given a very uncomfortable wedgie. I’m going to stick with smiling because I don’t look like a serial killer that way. Or, at least I look like a very nice one. Do what makes you comfortable.
  • Photo editing software is AWESOME. I know, I know — it’s really annoying when magazines photoshop a model’s arms right off (although, now that I think about it, maybe they were swinging them like monkeys…). But seriously, I don’t want to add a “thigh gap.” And I don’t need to look like Jennifer Lawrence (though that would be nice). Really, I just want to look like my best self. Not the one that’s been drinking too much coffee and hasn’t slept more than five hours a night for a week. A good photographer can do this without making you look like someone your own mother wouldn’t recognize.
  • Have fun! The best pictures we got were the ones where I was relaxed (and smiling and not flapping my arms). It may have taken a little while — poor Jenn probably had to discard the first 100 shots. But hey, that’s the beauty of digital.

Jan Edit 5095 CroppedNow that the pictures are done, I’m not really sure what I was waiting for. It’s kind of nice to have a professional portrait. So if you haven’t had yours done, go for it! And in case you’re curious, here’s how mine turned out. I may not be JLaw, but I’m happy… At least my arms aren’t waving around and I’m smiling. Really, all that’s missing are some laser beams and a cat and it would be perfect:)


In Memory of Kent

So yesterday I sat down, all prepared to write a post taking on this article that claims adults should feel “embarrassed” to read books “written for children.” (Cue massive, unashamed eye roll.)

Then, because I’m an epic procrastinator, I popped on over to Facebook. Figured I’d hang there a minute, check out my friends’ latest antics/kid pix/inspirational cat videos. Maybe post something witty about said procrastination.


Kent, just being Kent…

Instead, I was shocked to find people saying heartfelt goodbyes to one of my lifelong friends, Kent Batchelder — a guy I’d known since second grade, who sat next to me in classrooms all through elementary, middle, high school and college. The guy who nick-named me “Jan-baby,” and spent half of eighth grade enthusiastically chanting that from the chair to my right — much to my embarrassment — over. And over. And over again. When we got into high school, he then became the guy I could count on to call and ask me to every formal dance, even though I never said yes. (After all, he was my friend. My Kent. I didn’t want to wreck that by throwing dancing into the mix.) Still, he never stopped asking. And we never stopped being friends, despite my stubborn refusal to dance with him.

As I scrolled through my news feed with a growing feeling of dread, I began to hope maybe Kent had just moved. Or was taking a new job. He was definitely too young to die. But as more pictures appeared in his “memory” and word began to spread among mutual friends and old classmates, it was clear the worst had happened. Kent — one of the cleanest living, healthiest people I know — had been struck down in his prime by a very fatal and fast-moving cancer.

Suddenly, arguing with a so-called “grown-up” about what other grown-ups should feel “shame” about reading seemed silly. After all, the greatness of literature is not defined by the age of its characters or target audience. That’s just insulting — not only to the adults who enjoy and appreciate children’s literature, but to the people who write it, and even more so to the kids and young adults who read it themselves. I mean really… who is to say that your experience at forty-five is more important/meaningful/literary than a fifteen-year-old’s? Sadly, as I was reminded yesterday, you may not even live to see forty-five. The greatness in life is not how many days you spend living, but how you spend your days.

So today, I’d like to pay tribute to my friend Kent, a man who didn’t dismiss young people, but fostered their growth in his career as a middle school counselor. You may not have known Kent, but I bet (or hope) you’ve had a Kent in your life. As a kid, he was the guy who got along with everyone. As an adult, he was the cool grown-up kids could relate to — the young, active guy with an empathetic ear, constant smile and solid advice. Looking at his Facebook page, it’s clear how many lives he touched — whether he was mentoring students or leading one of his many international studies trips to places like France, Japan and Australia. Kent was a man who completely and fully embraced life and encouraged his students to do the same. The world won’t be the same without him.

Like most old school pals, Kent and I moved in different directions after college (he landed in Massachusetts, I wound up in Virginia). But we always kept in touch. When my first book was published, Kent promptly ordered it from the UK (and, of course, donated it to his school library). I last got to see Kent a year ago at our high school reunion. Thankfully, he didn’t chant “Jan-baby” at me. We did, however, have a great time chatting and catching up. Because that’s the amazing thing about friends who have known you since your banana-seat bike riding, braces-wearing days — once you get back together, the years just melt away.

I only wish he’d asked me to dance. Because Kent, I still owe you one.

Rest in peace, dear friend. I will miss you.


The Magic of Writing

It’s sort of a funny thing, being a writer. Tell people you’ve written a book, and they immediately think you’re a) rich, b) rich and famous, or c) going to be rich and famous (and able to help them find a publisher for their book, still to-be-written, of course).

But mostly, they seem to think you work some kind of voodoo magic. Spinning stories out of thin air. Casting them off into the world without blinking an eye. Case in point, a conversation I had recently with a good friend who is a commercial pilot.

Pilot friend: So how do you do it?
Me: Do what?
PF: You know. Write. What’s a typical day like for you?
Me: Well, I get up in the morning, have my coffee, walk the dog. Then I sit down with my laptop and write. Then I usually have lunch. And hit the gym. And then I write some more, even if I don’t really feel like it. Especially if I’m on deadline.
PF: Huh. That’s not at all what I pictured. No coffee shops? No writer’s groups with everyone wearing black and sipping espressos? No shots of whiskey?
Me: No. Coffee shops are distracting. And you know I like bright colors. Mochas with whipped cream. And wine. Preferably the sparkling kind.
PF: Laughs. Well, I still don’t know how you do it. I could never do that. Just sit down and write a book.
Me: Yeah? And I could never just step into a cockpit and fly a plane, either.

And that’s the thing — somehow there’s this strange myth that if you’re really, truly a Real, True Writer all you need to do take pen to paper and the words will flow, like magic. Yeah, right. Sure, some people are born with an innate talent for writing. Just like some have an innate talent for science or all things mechanical. But who on earth would expect (or want!) a pilot that flew on “innate talent” alone? Or a surgeon who just had a gut feeling where to find the appendix? (Unless, of course, he stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night, in which case your book signing is safe.)

In my mind, writing is no different. If we want to be any good, we have to practice. And read. And get out into the world and observe. And listen. And practice some more. But mostly, we have to commit — commit to putting our butts in our chairs, commit to writing, commit to learning and to accepting criticism. We have to be willing to put in the time and effort, kind of like a pilot logging hours before they can fly solo.

I’ve heard it said (probably a million times), that it takes a million bad words before a writer produces something worth publication. (Let’s see… that would be word number 925,461… not that I’m counting or anything…). And maybe it’s not exactly a million words, but the point is valid — to do something well, we have to do it over. And over. And over again. And we have to fail (probably more than once), so we can learn from our mistakes.

After all, an overnight success is just someone who has worked really hard to become successful, right?

So how do you learn and grow as a writer? (Or pilot? Or surgeon?) Tell me in the comments below!

Jan Gangsei doesn’t have a clue how to fly a plane. But one of these days, she’d love to learn. In the meantime, she’s perfectly happy using her imagination to soar into the clouds.