Friday, March 22, 2013

Wrap Up: Sunflowers Edition

After this week's marathon of freezing temperatures, these are probably the only kind of Spring flowers we're likely to see around here. I did this drawing on my infamous chalkboard wall (more pictures here!), and it's been lovely getting a little burst of color every time I turn a corner in my apartment.

This week's blog posts!:

Gemma Cooper from The Bent Agency discusses her upcoming trip to the Bologna Book Fair and what she (and other agents) have to look forward to

Rachelle Gardner did a two-part series on everyone's favorite subject: how to make a living as a writer. Part 1 is here, and Part 2 is here

My agent-sibling Katie Quirk gives some insight into the inspiration for her YA novel, A Girl Called Problem

Publetariat talks about Kickstarting a book, what it costs and what they wish they had done differently

K.M. Weiland offers advice on how to keep developing your character: what's the very worst thing that could happen to them?

Kristin Nelson's top 2 reasons why she passes on sample pages should really be called "two things that kill your opening"

Love love love this--Nathan Bransford is starting a "Thank a Writer" project

One more thing.

Have a great weekend and enjoy the freezing-cold sunshine!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Role of Culture in YA

I’ve been thinking a lot about culture in fiction, especially YA. Part of that has to do with this week’s read: Shadow and Bone, by Leigh Bardugo, a fantasy with Russian/Slavic influences. But it’s also been on my mind as I think about my next manuscript, which features a multicultural protagonist. So much of YA fiction is about the white experience and reflects a modern, Western perspective. When a book is about something different, what does that mean for the writer? For the readers? What’s the “right” way to write about culture, and is there even a clear answer?

Let me say upfront that I’m not going to be talking much about Shadow and Bone specifically. I’m aware of the criticism it faced from Russian readers for its use (and misuse) of Russian words. Although I can understand the frustration those readers felt (and it suggests that maybe some more research should have been done), frankly I don’t really think Shadow and Bone is supposed to be a primer on Russian language or life, nor should anyone expect it to be.

But I do think it’s a good example of what, given Shadow and Bone’s popularity, could become a trend in YA: culture as an exotic hook and not something integral to the story.

There’s a worryingly large amount of Western-based fantasy, and readers and writers are calling for a change, for stories that reflect different experiences and perspectives. This is great, and already there are some moves in that direction—Akata Witch, Cinder, Ship Breakers, Tiger Moon, and The Immortal Rules are all awesome SF/F that feature non-Western characters and/or settings.

Where things get tricky, I think, is how culture is used within a story. There’s a temptation to pick out the surface details to add texture to your world (think food, clothing, the occasional italicized word) while ignoring the underlying meaning behind it all. If your fantasy characters are drinking green tea and wearing red silk but talk like West Coast teenagers from 2013, it sort of misses the point of introducing another culture in the first place.

What I’m trying to say is that culture is, like anything, a tool to tell a story. It should drive forward plot and expand the world, and it should inform everything from dialogue to the characters’ beliefs to the choices they make. That doesn’t mean a fantasy world based on one culture has to be universally-reflective of that culture (in the way that Lord of the Rings isn’t an instruction manual in Anglo-Saxon). But if, for example, you’re writing a fantasy based on Spanish culture, it’s beneficial to understand that religion is incredibly important because of a long history of religious struggle between Muslims, Jews, and Christians, leading up to the Spanish Inquisition and Franco’s control over the church. The way a Spanish-influenced fantasy character would think about religion should be incredibly different from the way a modern American does, and you can’t just throw some iconography in there and call it a day.

Anytime authors try something out of the box, I think it’s generally a step in the right direction. And I can understand, also, the hesitancy to go outside your comfort zone, given that you can work really hard to understand and integrate a culture and still face a lot of criticism for getting things wrong. But I think it’s important to remember that culture isn’t window dressing. It’s not fancy clothing or crazy weapons. It’s not something that can be copy-pasted into a manuscript by changing a few words. It’s an integral part of the story that reveals something unique about your characters and your world.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Wrap Up: St Paddy's Day Edition

Happy St. Paddy's Day!

I made the Guinness cake above a few years ago, back when I actually used to bake cakes from mixes (the foam was chocolate with vanilla icing, the stout vice-versa). Since then, I've upped my game and am already planning some boozy doozies for a party tomorrow night: whisky-soaked dark chocolate cupcakes with amaretto buttercream frosting and a chocolate cup inside to fill with Bailey's and take a shot. Because what else says celebration of Irish culture with triple-liquor baked goods?!

On to this week's wrap up:

Publishing Crawl did a week of posts based on the theme Pay It Forward in honor of Poison, the debut novel of  Bridget Zinn, who sadly passed away before she got to see her book published. They're all great posts, but some of my favorites were about books that inspire, mentors, and teachers and librarians.

Publishers Weekly has more about Bridget, with a link to a starred PW review and an explanation of how Poison came to light

Nathan Bransford is self-publishing a writing guide and calling for suggested topics. He also had a great post about calmness in the age of digital distraction

Galleycat offers some tips on how writers can use tumblr

via Kristen Nelson, Agent Catch Phrase Bingo!

Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

5 Tips for Working On the Road

Just in case you don't happen to own a combination Vespa/laptop stand

Although I’m mostly a homebody at this point, last week’s whirlwind trip to New York reminded me of the days before I got married, when the husband was in Boston and then Chicago, while I lived in NYC. I got frighteningly used to traveling, my iPod forever stocked with podcasts and episodes of Flight of the Concords, my bags pared down to one purse and one over-the-shoulder.

And because work doesn’t stop just because you’re traveling, I also picked up some tips and tricks for writing on the road. Here are some of my favorites.

 Always keep a small pen and pad with you:
This one is helpful even if the traveling you’re doing is to the grocery store. You never know when you’ll get an idea, and a lot of times the back of a receipt isn’t going to cut it. Luckily, there are lots of great options for tiny notebooks and micro-pens, perfect for purses, pockets, and morning runs. My current favorite is this little beauty.

If you travel a lot, consider investing in a netbook:
For longer trips or if you don’t travel too often, carrying a laptop isn’t usually a problem. But if you’re a frequent traveler trying to keep things light, a netbook—a small, cheap laptop—is a good solution. I got myself a netbook a few years ago, when I didn’t want to lug my laptop around all the time but still needed to work online when I traveled. There’s a huge range of netbooks, of course, but I’d recommend going as bare-bones as possible: small, lightweight, a good battery, and don’t worry too much about the processor (since you’ll probably just use the Internet and Word). Here’sthe one I use, and it’s still kicking four years later.

How to keep changes consistent, even when working on separate files:
Of course, working on a netbook or any computer other than your regular one means sometimes you can run into problems keeping edits and revisions consistent. You can copy-paste changes from the new document to the original, but there’s always a risk that you’ll miss a change or that the new document has some weird formatting you don’t want. There are a couple work-arounds:

  1. Consider the cloud: Google has some great free software that allows you to access documents from anywhere online. Part backup service, part online library, Google Drive will automatically backup selected files on your hard drive, allowing you—or anyone else you choose—to view and/or work on the document. This is especially helpful if you’re working on anything collaborative, but it’s also great when you’re on the road. Just open the latest version of your document and get working—all changes will be automatically saved and ready for you when you’re back home.
  2.  Sometimes, though, you can’t get online, and then you’re stuck with a totally new version of your document saved on another hard drive. You can make changes in “track changes” to be more aware of your edits, but if you didn’t remember to track changes or just didn’t want to, there’s an easy way to see all the changes in a new document. Open Word, and click on the “Review” tab. Click on “Compare” and then “Compare two versions of a document.” When prompted, click on the original document and the revised document. A new document will open, showing all the changes between the two. Super helpful when there are a few different versions of your manuscript floating around.

Take time to stop working:
One of the nicest things about traveling is that you’re usually in a state of suspended animation. You’re in between places, you’re moving but staying still, and laptops and notebooks aside, it’s usually not the most work-friendly environment. The nice thing about this is that it can force you to take time to stop, look out the window, and think. You can’t go online (unless you’re in one of those fancy wi-fi enabled planes, trains, or buses), and there’s not much else to do but sit and be quiet. Take advantage of that time. Listen to some music or close your eyes. Think about the people around you, where they might be going, what they might be thinking. I’ll be the first to admit that traveling is hectic and exhausting, but it’s also one of the few times when your mind has the freedom to wander (mostly) uninterrupted. Take advantage of that.

Giant headphones can be lifesavers:
Back when I worked in radio, I learned about the magic of gigantic, really nice headphones. Not only do they make audio sound uh-maz-ing, but even unplugged they make fantastic noise-cancellers, insulating your little eardrums from the outside world. They might be a little harder to transport than sleek, skimpy earbuds, but they’ll pay you back in blocking out crying babies and argumentative phone calls. My favorites (and the ones I, uh, “liberated” from my old job) are Sony MDR-7506. These are the industry standard, and I promise, you won’t find any nicer.

Do you have any favorite travel tips? How do you stay focused when on the road?

Monday, March 11, 2013

Writing Spaces: Pack Your Towel

Thanks for your patience last week, while I traveled to New York, slipped past incoming and outgoing snowstorms, met my fab agent in real life*, and temporarily relieved my east coast nostalgia. I'm back to work and back to posting, starting with today's tribute to one of my favorite writers and the man who brought us the answer to life, the universe, and everything: Douglas Adams!

I actually thought about Douglas Adams on my trip, when I realized I had broken the cardinal rule of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and forgotten to pack a towel (less a problem at my parents' house, but when I stayed with friends in the city I had to use combination beach towel and old laundry).

I looked around for pictures of Adams in his office and mostly came up short. The best I could do were these pictures, the first of Adams relaxing in his Santa Barbara home (because when you're a writer and can afford it, why wouldn't you live in the warmest, most beautiful places in the world?).

And this one, where Adams' half brother James Thrift leans against the Shaftesbury, North Dorset desk on which Adams wrote Hitchhikers.

Of course, thanks to Google, we have a desk any hitchhiker would be proud of, complete with towel, cup of tea, and the guide itself, with Adams famous (and highly useful) advice: DON'T PANIC.

*There was a moment as I was striding down Fifth Avenue, dodging tourists and saying to a friend on the phone "Can I call you back? I have to meet my agent for lunch," that I realized my life was the most movie-about-a-plucky-writer-who-finds-success-in-NYC that it had ever been. And then I whacked my hipbone on the subway turnstile it was like welcome back to reality, sucker!

Monday, March 4, 2013

Snow Week on the Blog!

Well, the snow I've been griping about is finally on its way, OF COURSE the one day I plan on traveling. So, I'm moving my schedule up a bit and flying out to New York City for some friend/family/work-related events. That means the posts I'd been hoping to post ahead will probably stay in the Internet ether for a little bit. I'll try to get this week's Quick Review up for Thursday, but otherwise I'll see you all next week!

Friday, March 1, 2013

Wrap Up: Gimme Paw Edition

I swear this isn't going to turn into the All-Abby Blog, but I am so proud of my little pup and how far she's come in the few days since we've had her that I thought I'd make today's Wrap Up an Abby edition. Here she is showing off a new trick she learned, and for a dog that on Sunday was supposedly completely untrained and not housebroken (total accidents: 1), I think she's doing pretty well.*

This week's posts!

YA Highway has a terrific post about the difference between deadlines and time limits, and why when you put a time limit on something, you might be setting yourself up for disappointment

YA Confidential put together a great roundtable of teen readers, who shared their thoughts about female sexuality in YA

Over at Books and Such, in the rise of self-publishing, will the traditional publisher become a prestige brand?

The nominees for the Bram Stoker Awards for best horror novels are out, and Galleycat has links to free samples

Mark Corker, founder of self-pub distributor Smashwords, and Michael Pitsch, soon-to-be CEO of Hachette, talk with NPR about the future of publishing

Agent Kristen Nelson offers her writing tip of the week!

*The janky belt leash is not her normal leash, which she chewed into 8 different pieces yesterday. We have a replacement outside leash and are temporarily using this indoor leash (the belt parts are removed and secured, the leash is attached to her collar with a regular dog leash clasp).