Friday, November 30, 2012

Wrap Up: Chalkboard Edition

I am frankly shocked that I've gone this long without talking about what is possibly my favorite feature of the apartment: our lovely chalkboard wall. We (I) painted it when we first moved in, but it normally doesn't get much use beyond listing groceries (for the past six months, I used it to draw a large-scale map of the setting for my latest book).

This is what I drew last year for Christmas, after a minor bout of depression due to our fireplace-less apartment. This year, I'm truly embracing the Christmas chalkboard spirit and challenging myself to do a different Christmas drawing every day (starting tomorrow, I'll be blogging about it!).

On to this week's posts!

Happy end of NaNoWriMo! My crit partner, Natasha, took up the NaNo challenge and despite a hurricane, blizzard, no electricity, and three young boys managed to get her 50k words done early. Amazing, this woman.

Galleycat finishes up its NaNo tips today, but I think we could all benefit from this one: have a literary drink

Rachelle Gardner made me laugh with her post asking if you've ever hated a book so much that you threw it across the room

David Gaughran looks at Simon & Schuster's new self-pubbing branch, Author Solutions, which has had some shady dealings with authors and been accused of ripping off authors

It's your last day to vote for the Nerdy Book Club Awards!

One more thing 

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Two Things I Learned from Reading the Cybils that All Writers Should Know

I am still slogging away at the Cybils (pictured above: this week's deliveries), and as my fellow judges and I whittle away at our favorites, a few big things are jumping out at me, things that separate the amazing from the meh.

Number one: good is not enough.

I’ve said this before, but a good story, good writing, and good characters are not enough. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve finished a book and thought “Well. That was fine.” Fine. Nothing jumped out at me positively or negatively, the plot went nicely from A to B, the characters developed. It was enjoyable. It was forgettable. It was fine.

YA has become one of the most dynamic groups of books out there, which, frankly, is why I love it so much. The problem with good is that it’s the bar. It’s the baseline. Readers come in expecting a certain level, and good is the bare minimum. This means good is not enough—your story has to bring something new to the table to stand out.

Number two: characters need to want.

In the Cybils, there’s a rule that if we read a book and know that it doesn’t meet the levels of the award, we can stop reading after 50 pages. Generally, I try to go a bit past the 50-page mark, just in case something exciting happens (I can think of two books on my shortlist that exploded right at 50 pages). Lately, though, if I’m on the fence about continuing a book, I ask myself a question: do I know what the main character wants?

Really, this is just shorthand for asking whether or not there’s any clear plot, and you would be surprised at how often I answer that question with “not really.” This tends to happen with a main character, usually a girl, usually nice and sweet and mildly attractive who doesn’t stand out in any discernible away and doesn’t seem to want anything beyond not attracting attention.

First, this is terribly boring to read, but more than that, there is not a single human anywhere on this planet who is not striving for something—fame, success, love, stability. Want equates plot, since, theoretically, the book should be the character trying to get what they want. Otherwise, it’s just stuff happening to them.

There’s a lot I’m learning from reading these books, but those are the two that have jumped out at me most. I hope they're helpful to keep in mind as you think about your own writing, and I'll be back soon with more Cybils updates!

Friday, November 16, 2012

Wrap Up: Turkey Time Edition

I literally can't believe that it will be Thanksgiving in less than a week. Whaaa? Wasn't it just August? I haven't even put away the ice cream maker! But it's true, and this time next week I will be in a happy food coma thanks to my mother-in-law's amazing cooking (seriously: what this woman can do with mashed potatoes...).

That means I'll be taking a blog break next week, and I'll be back again with desks, thoughts, the weekly wrap up, and a review of Code Name Verity starting Nov. 26 (I just had a mini freak out writing that. 26? As in less than a month to Christmas? I'm pretty sure that can't be right).

On to this week's posts!

At PubCrawl, Julie Eshbaugh talks about how to discover the secrets your characters are hiding. Mandy Hubbard discusses the state of the YA market. Jordan Hamessley London breaks down the editor letter from an editor's perspective. And I mentioned this earlier in the week, but it deserves another mention: Marie Lu on her first novel.

Cupid's Literary Connection is hosting another amazing query contest!

Literary Rambles interviewed agent Mary Kole about her new kidlit book and are giving away copies to lucky readers

The Babysitters' Club is coming to e-books! (although I admit, I was more a "Babysitters' little sisters" girl. Karen Two-two 4eva!)

From Writers Beware, a great post by Kfir Luzzatto on how to turn down publishing contracts that don't feel right

Expect more of this discussion coming up: Trish Doller on the rise of the New Adult genre

One more thing

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

First Loves, First Novels

My sophomore year dorm room.
Just looking at this picture caused a mini WTF-explosion in my brain.

I read Marie Lu’s very sweet essay about first novels today over at Pub Crawl, and it reminded me of my own forays into writing.

I wrote stories all the time when I was little, starting in first grade when I wrote a sparse, poetic, experimental novel called “Cat, Mat, Flat” (I got a check plus plus! It was my first moment of literary success).

Around the time of the Goosebumps series (I want to say third grade?), I wrote a multi-part horror story wherein a girl gets brutally murdered because she turns down the nerdy kid for prom. That one was a lot of fun. While it was still a work in progress, I shared it with a friend, who shared it with another kid, who passed it on.

Eventually I would sit at the lunch table and, like some literary assembly line, as soon as I wrote a page I’d hand it off to be read. I have a very distinct memory of looking up and seeing eight or so kids quietly reading what I had written with an intensity usually reserved for Power Rangers or Saved By the Bell.* Some were friends but not all, and I was struck with a powerful feeling that even though I didn’t know these kids, they knew me, just by reading what I had written. Weird, but also pretty cool.

My first big, actual novel came in middle school (don’t they all?). It was Newsies fan-fiction, because, like I said, I was in middle school. I’ve written about fan-fiction before, and, generally, I’m in favor of it. For me, it was a little like writing training wheels, being able to rely on a world and a whole set of characters and drop my own stories inside instead of making up everything myself.**

I ended up writing three full-length novels, the third clocking in at over 50,000 words. They are, of course, terribly-written, melodramatic, and better serving the world stuffed into some random corner of my hard drive,*** but the biggest take away I got from writing them was that I could do this. I could write a novel, plan it out, keep characters moving and developing, and get to an ending. I can’t tell you how valuable this was, to be able to tell myself when I was really trying to write a proper novel: I did it when I was thirteen and damn it, I can do it now.

In college I fell, like so many twenty-somethings do, into the world of short, thinly-veiled essays about life as a young woman at a demanding university located somewhere in the Northeast. They got published (anonymously, because this was already the time of Facebook) in lit mags and zines and e-editions and all sorts of bastardizations of actual publications. Oh! And once I read one on the radio. That was sorta cool (sound effects!).

When I tried to write a real, adult novel, I completely and utterly failed. In retrospect, I don’t know what I was thinking trying to write from the perspective of a Jewish, middle-aged woman whose mother has Alzheimer’s. But I’d written a good-length short story about it, it was well-received, and so I gave it a try. And? Terrible. Not the writing—but the experience. I hated sitting down and working on it. I hated thinking of ideas. But I had already told people I was working on a novel and, even more than my writing, I hated having to tell people “Oh, my novel? Yeah, it’s still not finished.”

For years, that experience chased me away from writing. I thought that once I graduated from high school, I could only write “grown-up” stuff. But I was in my early twenties. I couldn’t even balance a checkbook, let alone imagine what it would be like to have a job or a family or a house. I kept thinking back to my fan-fiction days, when I would spin whole scenarios in my head every night. It was fun and exciting and made me love writing. I wanted that back.

So, I tried to start another first novel. No promises, I told myself. No dreams of publishing, just try to find that love. I went to my roots, writing about a teenage girl. I stopped trying to write like a grown-up and instead focused on what made me happy and wanting to write (read: not pseudo-intellectual navel-gazing with rhetorical questions in place of plot). And it worked. I got the love back, got the drive, finished the novel, and proved to myself that I could do this as, like, my life.

That first novel is a few years old now, and I feel properly embarrassed by it. It’s easy for me to see, now, the plot holes and stumbling prose that I missed on the first go-round, and when I think about it at all, it’s with a sense that I’ve come very far. But it was on my mind yesterday, and I remembered how much I loved it, how I thought it was going to be my big debut, and how, when that seemed less and less likely, I was able to set it aside and focus on the next novel.

“I was pretty delusional, wasn’t I?” I asked the husband last night, and he nodded.

“But not in a bad way,” he said, and I thought I knew what he meant, that I was just delirious enough to believe in my own talent but not quite so far-gone that I was some literary Miss Havisham, waiting for a publishing contract that would never come, my wedding dress in tatters, surrounded by dust and dirt and a gently-moldering feast (or, you know, the writing equivalents of all that).

So, those are my first novels. My first loves. Every single one taught me something and made me better at writing (also better at being human and worse at wearing pants). There’s a tendency to feel embarrassed about first novels, and I do, the same way I remember feverish crushes and wonder what the hell I was thinking. But there’s fondness, too, because, like falling in love, every new experience brought happiness and pride and wonder and showed me, if only in glimpses, that the things I’ve always wanted in my life aren’t as far away as they seem.

*It was the 90s!
**Aaaaand I just realized that my favorite genre to write in, historical fiction, is essentially dropping a unique character and story into an already-existing world. Coincidence? I feel like I just had some Freudian break-through: All my writing is to get back the thrill of fan-fiction!!!! But I digress (I mean, obviously).
***Even though they still exist online! Every year or so I check out the comments and lose myself in nostalgia.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Writing Spaces: Happy Birthday, Kurt Vonnegut

Every time I see photos like these I always wonder: did the photographer purposefully throw papers on the floor to give it the right "messy writer" vibe? And then I look down under my desk and think "Nope."

Happy Birthday, Kurt Vonnegut, author of my favorite I'm-a-quirky-and-sorta-pretentious-high-schooler books as well as one of the absolute best quotes about writing:

"When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in my mouth."

Friday, November 9, 2012

Wrap Up: Fall Leaves Edition

I have the prettiest maple tree right outside my window, which allows me to enjoy the wonder of the changing seasons without, y'know, going outside. This picture, of the setting sun turning the red leaves even redder, was taken last year, since this year instead of the leaves going from green to yellow to orange to red, they went from green to less green to shriveled up and brown.

Anyone know what that means? Crazy winter ahead? What do the trees know that we don't?!?!

On to this week's best posts!

An article by Sarah Mesle in the Los Angeles Review of Books caused quite a stir yesterday. Mesle's essay, titled "YA Fiction and the End of Boys," suggests that YA fiction these days does a disservice to boys and fails to teach them to be strong, brave, confident men. I suggest you read the whole article and then check out these excellent rebuttals from Kristin Halbrook, Saundra Mitchell, and Phoebe North

Veronica Roth has started a new series of how-tos on her blog, walking readers through her revision process for Book 3 of the Divergent series. Here's Day 1 and Day 2

Vanessa DiGregorio puts together yet another great list of this month's YA releases

GalleyCat is continuing its tradition of NaNo writing tips. Check out this link to see this week's!

It's something we all should know, but a little reminder never hurt: Rachelle Gardner offers 13 tips on how to communicate politely and professionally. She also has a great post on why, even though things in publishing might be a bit uncertain now, it's not a reason for despair

Nathan Bransford also comments on the future of publishing in digital age and declares that the publishing industry doesn't need special protection

The aftershocks of the Penguin Random House merger will no doubt continue to rock through the industry. Via Writers Beware, here's what the Authors Guild had to say about it

Rachel Kent talks about how to research when you can't experience what you're writing

Loved this: via GalleyCat, a couple who turned their collection of Penguin-cover postcards into a beautiful piece of literary art!

From Publishers Weekly, a look at who has the better covers: US or UK?

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

A Day in the Life of a Cybils Judge

What one trip to the library now looks like
We’re about halfway through Cybils season, so I thought I’d share a little bit what life is like on the inside.

First: I read. I read all the damn time. My average is a book a day, with two books on Saturday (and, if I’m really feeling like a superhero, Sunday). Although we’re allowed to stop after fifty pages if we don’t think the book meets the award’s levels, generally I end up reading the whole thing—stopping a book without finishing just gives me the willies.

Despite feeling like my eyeballs are going to go on strike, I’m loving reading all these books. Most of what I’ve read in YA has been science-fiction/fantasy, so it’s been great to read so much straightforward fiction. And it’s especially wonderful to pick something up and it just sings—beautifully written, powerful, smart, funny, honest. As a writer, it’s been a humbling and inspiring experience.

Some things that I’ve noticed that have surprised me: a lot of boy main characters, way more than I expected. I’ve always heard that boys are underrepresented in YA, but you wouldn’t think that looking at what I’ve read. There’s a slight advantage to the girls, but it’s almost split right down the middle boys vs. girls (several male-female dual narrators as well). Also, not a lot of historical fiction! The vast majority seems to be contemporary and set in the US, which, I admit, makes this former history major a little sad.  

It’s been wonderful discussing books with my fellow judges, too. Because we come from a range of backgrounds—librarians, teachers, writers—we all seem to be looking for different things in the books. For some of us, kid appeal is really important, for others, we’re focused on literary merit or readability.

And a lot of the books hit a range. Some are clearly beautifully written, but so slowly paced that they would have a hard time appealing to teen readers. Others are funny or real or speak to kids in their own language but have plot holes or believability issues. When trying to figure out a book’s merit, it’s been so helpful (and really freaking cool) to hear my fellow judges’ smart opinions (also: their pitches for TV shows. WHERE ARE OUR TV DEVELOPMENT CONTRACTS?!?).

But the biggest thing has been the reading. I read when I wake up. I read while waiting to hear back on emails. I read while exercising (thanks, Nook!). I read before bed. I’ve been to the library so many times they know me as “that girl who requests six books at a time and swept the ‘New YA Releases’ shelf into her backpack.” The most exciting thing to happen to me today was that I got an email saying that all my holds are ready for pick up! Cybils judging—the glamorous life.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Writing Spaces: Get Out the Vote

This lovely little writing table is the sister to the desk currently used by the President of the United States, known as the Resolute desk. Both desks were made out of timbers from the British ship Resolute, which was lost in ice and eventually recovered and sent back to Queen Victoria.

In gratitude, she had at least two desks commissioned: the larger, more ornate one that now lives in the Oval Office, and this one, a ladies writing desk given to the widow of Henry Grinnell, who helped fund restoration efforts of the Resolute.

While you can only see the bigger Resolute desk if you're lucky enough to get an invitation to the White House, this beauty is on display at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, where I stumbled upon it last March and happily took some snapshots.

Since I featured the Oval Office last February, I thought for the day before the election, I'd show the other Resolute desk--and tomorrow, don't forget to vote!