Friday, October 31, 2008

Happy Halloween!

As a high school teacher, I get the shaft on Christmas presents. Elementary teachers get the Christmas presents, but by high school, the kids are too old/mature/greedy to give their poor ol' teachers a present.

But. Halloween is our redemption. Four classes = four opportunities for cupcakes and candy.

So, whether you're trick-or-treating, tossing out candy to the younguns, or wondering how to roll yourself out of school with five cupcakes in your belly...


Thursday, October 30, 2008

Book Review: Jeanne DuPrau's City of Ember

So, yeah, I'm basically the last person on Earth to read this. I mean, it looked good and stuff, but, well, different. A little too different, if you know what I mean.

Yeah, me neither. I don't know why, it just didn't appeal to me, despite the shiny cover.

But... Oh, how wrong I was. I loved it. Loved, loved, loved it.

See, I'm writing something similar. Completely different, but similar. See, I'm working on this book. A scifi. In space and all. And a murder mystery. So, yeah, completely different...but also the same. Constrained, limited area for population to live? Check. A corrupt governing body? Check. Two kids trying to figure it all out? Check. A mysterious beginning/end to the society? Check.

So, this book actually worked out very well for me, and was quite apropos.

Five Sentence Plot Summary: Lina and Doon are both coming of age in a city underground...although they don't know it's underground. It's just home to them; all their life, and all the life of their parents and grandparents, have been spent in Ember, a city built (by the Builders) to protect the remains of society from what seems to be a post-apocalyptic world aboveground. But Ember is dying. And Doon and Lina are trying to figure out a way back to the top of the world...even if the mayor would rather be king of an empty empire.

So what can we, as writers, learn from this novel?

1. A different world
: In my opinion, this is where YA/MG lit sells SFF: different worlds. One reason why I came to love MG/YA so much is because I like fantasy--but the adult fantasy all followed the same format: Girl has magic power! Beautiful elves! Grumpy dwarves! Long, unpronounceable names! A life-tree! Magic! Gratuitous sex! Battle! The End! ...or... Boy finds sword! repeat other format, ad nauseum. Oh, and somewhere in there, you need a snow covered mountain and an excuse to cross it in a blizzard, a good guy turned bad, and a beloved wizard turned dead. You know, basically anything Tolkein wrote, except with different names.

BUT. MG/YA SFF is different. With a MG/YA audience, you actually have, you know, creativity. And The City of Ember is no exception to the rule. DeParu constructs an entirely new world here, and she gives it enough detail to make it believable. I have never read another book quite like this one, both in setting and theme, and that makes it wonderful. And while I'm sure she had influence in writing (who doesn't?), for the life of me, I cannot tell what kinds of works influenced her because she is so very unique.

2. Don't explain everything:
While DuPrau does create a whole new world, what she doesn't do is belabor it with too much world building. This is another mistake of adult SFF, the SF part of that in particular. I would like SF more if I didn't have to spend 100 of the 400 page tome reading about how the starship's engine worked. Who cares?! Throw me some action!

That's what DuPrau does. She gives us a short (3 page) introduction that gives the basic premise of the set-up for why Ember was created, but only the important stuff is there: the city is underground to ensure that the human race isn't wiped out from something, and there's plans for evacuating the city after about 200 years...but the plans are hidden so no one leaves earlier than that. That's it. We're not bogged down with details as to why/how/when Ember was made. Just the facts, ma'am.

3. Create mystery
: Spoliers! Highlight for this section: So, part of the story is a mystery. In the introduction I just mentioned, the Builders of Ember wanted to make sure that no one leaved the city before it was safe to return aboveground. Therefore, they wrote instructions for the exodus down, locked it in a box, and gave it to the mayor with instructions to ensure the box wasn't opened before time...but through a series of events, the box and the instructions come to Lina in a half-destroyed state. Lina and Doon spend most of the book figuring out the instructions so that they can leave Ember. Which means the reader then has the clues and tries to figure it out with them.

So, ultimately, what I'm saying here is that by adding solveable clues for the reader to figure stuff out makes the reader more engaged and active in the story. Even though Ember isn't a mystery, by adding an element of mystery, it makes the story much more better.

The Bottom Line: 1) Make a different world, something entirely new that hasn't been done before--or at least an element of unique-ness. 2) Focus on character and the story more than building that unique world. 3) Add mystery, even if the story isn't a mystery.


And I'm back!

First, the bad news. Just to get it out there. David Tennant is leaving Doctor Who. My time-traveling-kilt-fantasies are withering away. This is just so unfair, and such a sucky way to start the day. Sorry to do this to you.

(OK, I'm perfectly aware that many of you do not partake of Who-love. But I do, and this is HUGE! Huge, I say!)

His words on the subject (imagine the Scottish accent, it makes it better):
It would be very easy to cling on to the Tardis console for ever and I fear that if I don’t take a deep breath and make the decision to move on now, then I simply never will.
OK...back to real linkspam and away from my crying Scottish heart...

Nathan Bransford is reading my mind and asking my questions. As he has a (much) bigger audience than me, there promises to be a wider discussion on the subject.

Sherman Alexie was on Stephen Colbert last night
. Although basically nothing was said about his novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, Alexie did end the discussion with a zinger so amazing that it left Colbert speechless...which is quite an acoomplishment.

Christy's talking about revisions.
So go talk, too.

And speaking of revisions...Joss Wheedon (squee!) is talking about them, too, with his in-the-works-show, Dollhouse. Considering how I think he's the most brilliant writer (almost) ever, this is pretty cool. Even he agonizes over revising:
So back into the writer cave I went, wondering why I put up with this when I can make literally dozens of dollars making internet movies. Why I do put up with this is divided into three parts.

One: They're not wrong. Oh, we don't see eye-to-eye on everything, but wanting the first episodes to be exciting and accessible is not exactly Satanic. ...

Two: Nothing essential has changed about the universe. The ideas and relationships that intrigued me from the start are all there (though some have shifted, more on that), and the progression of the first thirteen eps has me massively excited. The episode we're shooting now I wrote as fast as anything I have before, not because I had to (although, funny side-note: I had to) but because I couldn't stop the words from coming. Because I can feel the show talking to me; delighting, scaring and occasionally even offending me. It's alive. Alive! Which is a far cry from how I felt a month ago.....
Finally, BBC (*sigh*DavidTennant) is starting up a new show that looks quite good, hope BBCA will pick it up (go check out the picture for this, it's pretty intriguing):
Merlin (BBC One)
No Robin Hood this autumn (that’s back in the new year); Saturday teatimes will instead get a magical, Arthurian makeover. Colin Morgan will star as the fledgeling wizard, opposite Richard Wilson, Anthony Head, Michelle Ryan and a dragon sounding suspiciously like John Hurt.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Coming Soon...

...regular posting. Sorry I've been so hit and miss lately. It was midterms and report cards this week, as well as helping a friend out with a revision. So, basically, no work done on blog, no work done on my own writing, and no work done on cleaning the house. I'm only really concerned about one of these :) and kinda concerned about the other.

But anyway, posting to resume! Soon! With a book review, and a link spam,! Yes, surprises!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008


I've got a Norwegian reader! :)

I love Google Analytics :) Also: Hello London, other cities in Great Britain (I so wish I could visit Pontypridd just for the name of the city!), and Germany! Gutenmorgan!

Monday, October 27, 2008

This is a First...

...I was commenting on someone's blog that requires you to type in those little random letters in the box. And for the first time ever, the letters actually spelled out a word.


Think it means something? ;)

The Alchemist and Finding your Personal Legend

So most of you know that my day job is as a teacher. That's why I've not been posting much cards come out soon, and I've been up to my eyeballs in grading essays.

The essays this term were on a novel by Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist. It is a brilliant little book, well told, and short enough to both have a punch-to-the-gut kind of importance without taking away all reader imagination. So I had the kids read this book on their own and then write a 5 page essay on how the main character is a hero and how the book inspires them to be the hero of their own lives (we were doing a bunch of that Joseph Campbell stuff at the time).

And while I've read this book at least 3 times, I don't think I ever really came up with how applicable it really is to one's own life. It truly is a universal book. But more than that, I think it is the perfect book for a writer on the rocks.

The thing is, I've been a bit down about revisions. I dislike revisions, but I think I've grown enough as a writer recently to realize the extent to which I must revise. I've been writing novels for, Lord, almost 7 years now (wow, really?!) without publication, and getting to the point where I was mature enough as a person (I started when I was 20) and mature enough as a writer (with stacks of pages hidden under the bed) has been a process in and of itself. And while I might be improving, I'm also aware of the fact that my eyes are getting full of shiny green jades.

But The Alchemist is a good book to restore the (writer's) soul. See, it's all about following your dreams, even when the going gets tough. Here's the super-quick rundown:

Everyone has a Personal Legend. This is your dream. Whatever the purpose of your life is, that is your Personal Legend. For me, it's my published book on the shelf. Now, once you realize your Personal Legend, you will have Beginner's Luck. The Soul of the World (fate, God, the universe-- the thing that cares about insignificant you) will help you to achieve your dream, and because dreams are difficult to accomplish, you have Beginner's Luck. Because, “When you want something, all the world conspires in helping you to achieve it.” But your luck will run out, and you'll have to work for your dream, your Personal Legend. Bad things will happen. Good things will happen. Both will make you want to stop seeking your Personal Legend.

In the end, the journey is as important as the dream. And the dream will come true to those who do not give up on it. After all:
At a certain point in our lives, we lose control of what’s happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fates. That’s the world’s greatest lie. Whoever you are, or whatever it is that you do, when you really want something, all the universe conspires in helping you achieve it.
And this is what it means to be a writer. In the beginning, you believe in the dream of publication, you believe that doing it makes it so. And there is Beginner's Luck--those good, inspiring comments early in our writing life that gives us faith in ourselves and our dream. And things happen to make you want to give up--bad rejections, form rejections, rejection in general. Even good things--like family and careers--make you want to give up on writing. But, knowing and believing in my own Personal Legend--and not giving up on it--is all that I can do. And hopefully, that world out there is conspiring to make my Personal Legend come true.

Thursday, October 23, 2008


So a kid just told me I should write a book and get rich from it.

Totally still laughing over that one.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

More Free Books!

Did I call it, or did I call it? Via Editorial Ass, MJ Rose is giving away a copy of her book, The Reincarnationist, for free, for the next ten days.

This is a book that has been on my radar back when Miss Snark was still live and mentioned it was a book she wished she had.

MJ's reasoning for giving away her book?

My book is free because my husband always asks me to bring home cookies from Sant Ambrose whenever I go into New York City. It's because I wear one of the L'Oeuvre Noire perfumes by Kilian. And it's because we both use L'Occitane Verbena Shower Gel. And what all those things have in common is at one point in my life as a consumer - or his - we sampled them.

...trying something for free is the best way of discovering it. And free doesn't mean sampling a quarter of a cookie - it means the whole cookie. ... It doesn't mean reading the first five pages of my book online - it means reading my whole book for free as a way of discovering me as an author.

And interestingly enough, she kinda answered my discussion question from a few posts ago:

Back in 1999 and 2000 a few of us... a very few of us... Douglas Clegg, Seth Godin and I... offered free electronic copies of our books in an effort to reach an audience we otherwise wouldn't have reached and to test out a new marketing concept for books. Despite the industry screaming we were crazy, it worked. We each wound up selling many more copies of the books that we gave away than anyone expected and for each of us the experiment was a success. Back then many thought it an audacious move and even though we proved free books led to increased books sales it's been hard for me to convince any of my publishers to try it again. Until now. I guess it's an idea whose time has come, or I've gotten more persuasive, or the VP I asked at my publishing house recently got a nice sample of a new moisturizer at the department store and understood the idea ... but whatever the reason, I'm thrilled.

Your Best

So much in this business is relative. Whether something is "good" or even "publishable" comes down to people's opinions, in the end. Even after a book is published, it's success is, ultimately, based on a combination of luck, marketing, and (reader's) opinions.

But the first opinion to count in writing is your own.

This is something that has taken me years to figure out, in part because I'm stubborn and in part because I'm dense. Because when I first started writing, I very rarely consulted my own opinion on my work--I very rarely considered my work with a critical eye. I was more concerned about getting the words on paper, and, at least in the long, long ago, the words on the paper were good merely because they were words on the paper.

I had a different definition of "my best work" when I wrote my first novel. It was best merely because I wrote it. I revised it based on grammar only.

I see this all the time in my position as writing and literature teacher. Students write something, and when I ask for a revision, a few sentences are swapped, a few commas deleted. Restructuring an entire essay--which might mean cutting one page and re-writing three--does not even occur to them, even with my big red ink pen slashing away at their work.

To them--and to me, if I'm honest with myself--I don't see how my work can really be better than it is. I think that it's my "best" because it's there.

It's harder to realize that this applies to one's own work, especially when one's own work is a 70k novel that's already been re-written twice. It's something that, for me, takes just time and practice as I train my eye not to think about the mood I was in when I wrote a passage, and to analyze the passage coldly in terms of plot and character. I never thought I was one of those sentimental writers. I always considered myself willing to ruthlessly kill my darlings. But it's more than just cutting a well loved first sentence to re-write chapter one and make it flow better. It's about stepping back and looking at your work not as your work, but as a novel not written by you--a novel that needs to be broken and glued together and polished until it shines.

Segue... My parents found a piano in a barn. It's at least a hundred years old. When I was little, they had the piano's insides worked on and keys replaced, and I learned how to play on that piano. I play better on it than any other piano. All those fancy pianos where you don't have to stand on the forte pedal or where high C doesn't stick--pshaw, those are for city-folk. My ancient instrument trumps theirs any time.

But, if I wasn't so close to that piano, I'd be able to let it go long enough for a real refurbishment. I'd get the wood restained instead of trying to save the finish with wax.

That's what I'm coming to realize with my book. If it wasn't mine, I'd be more willing to take out that chapter where the characters don't do anything. I'd be eager to re-write the jump-the-shark ending that I don't even really like in the first place. I'd be happier with changing that other character's motivations and background to better fit with the story arc.

In the end, I know that I will eventually make those changes. It's one reason why I'm already starting on my third re-write...I have to make those big changes one re-write at a time. And although I don't think I can ever let a furniture restorer touch my piano with sandpaper, I do think I might be able to kill my darlings a little bit more, until it really is my best work.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Going Global!

Google Analytics just told me that I have my first international visitors on this blog! Hello Canada and Australia! Welcome!

Author Interview: PJ Hoover

What are you doing reading this blog? Why aren't you on Amazon, pre-ordering PJ's book that comes out next week? Well?

PJ Hoover was one of my very first blog readers, and she's the first one to tell me that she liked my blog--she even beat my husband to the punch. Which gives her a special place in my blog heart :)

But beyond that, PJ's an amazing author. She runs Roots in Myth, a fantastic little blog that inspires people to make goals (Five on a Friday!) and sheds some light on what it's like to be a debut author. So, without further ado, here's her interview!

We can all read about your bio from the back of your book or your FAQ online. So, what's a completely random fact about you that most people don't know?
In college I used to tell people my name was Athena. And the best part? They believed me! I even had license plates on my red Jeep Wrangler with “Athena J” on them.

Loved college!

Your plane crashed on a deserted island, and Sawyer wasn't on it. You only have one book to entertain yourself with until the rescue comes—if it ever comes. What book do you wish you had with you on the island?
Hmmm…I’d want to make sure either it was the longest book in the world or one I could read over and over. Of the latter, I’ve already read them over and over, so I’ll go with the former and pick Crime & Punishment because: (1) It’s super long; (2) I’ve heard it’s great; (3) I want to read it; and (4) I haven’t yet made the time.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
An engineer! Boring, I know. But I loved all things computers (and yes, they got big when I was in high school). I taught myself to program Basic on an old Commodore 64 between games of Q*bert and Castle Wolfenstein.

In college, I did hit a slump senior year and decided I wanted to be an archaeologist. I stuck around for a fifth undergraduate year and got a history degree, but then decided engineering would pay way better so I went on to graduate school for Electrical Engineering.


How much of you is in your book? Is there a character like you? Is a situation in the book derived from real life?
Way less then was in the first draft! When I first start writing, I put so much of myself into my book. Luckily, The Emerald Tablet has been through enough revisions that lots of that extra stuff was removed.

Heidi is my favorite character, and I like to think she’s the closest to being modeled after me. She can read minds. Her hair changes color when her emotions flare up. And she ends up having a big crush on…oh, wait, that will come in Book 3.

What was your timeline in The Emerald Tablet? How long did it take to write, revise, submit, and finally, get published? How did you feel at these stages?
First draft – about three months.
Initial revisions – another six months.
At this stage, I thought it was perfect. Yikes! But the good thing is I went ahead and started on Book Two.

About six months later, I met an editor at a conference who offered to read The Emerald Tablet and give me some feedback. Yeah, she was really nice. Her suggestions were eye opening, and I devoured them, jumping back into revisions with a passion.
When I finished, I sent it back, and she read it again and offered more feedback. This went on a few more times, until one day she offered to buy the trilogy!
So to summarize, I started writing The Emerald Tablet in December 2004, signed a contract in February 2007, and hit publication October 2008.

If your reader could only take away one emotion, theme, or idea from
The Emerald Tablet, what would you want that to be?
To know that even if you’ve been given talents in life, that’s not enough. You need to make the effort to go above and beyond those talents and see what you can really accomplish.

To phrase it better—Don’t rest on your laurels.

What are your goals as an author? Where do you want to see yourself as a writer in 5, 10, 15 years?
I’d love to have a new book out each year. I want to always keep writing, continuously strive to improve, continuously feel like I am improving, and meet wonderful people. Oh yeah, and live is a giant mansion. And having a theme park after one of my series wouldn’t be too bad either.

What's the most surprising thing you've learned since becoming a writer?
How much I truly love every aspect of it. I love first drafts. I love revisions. I love designing bookmarks in Photoshop. I love sending emails to potential reviewers. I love happy hours with the writing community.

And the list could only go on.

Beyond the typical—never give up, believe in yourself—what would be the single best advice you'd like to give to an aspiring author?
Never give up!

Oh wait, you said beside that.

Do not be afraid to get feedback. Be willing to revise. Take time between revisions. There is no perfect book, and every author can use feedback!

And take yourself seriously.

OK, that was more than one thing! So how about—don’t be afraid to break the rules now and then.

Thanks for the interview, PJ!

Monday, October 20, 2008

*cough* ahem

I HATE GRADING STUDENT ESSAYS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

that is all.


First of all: a contest for a free copy of Moonstone! Go, enter, win!

Lisa Shearin just read my mind and posted her own blog entry about first drafts and revisions.
But mainly my problem is that I'm still working out the guts of the story while I'm writing it. I know the beginning, some scenes scattered throughout the book, and I know the ending. The trick is to come up with the story to link all of those together. The key there is come up with the story. Get it right the first time, and I've got relatively smooth sailing. But if I take a wrong turn, I lose valuable writing time trying to get myself back on the right track.
This article is so good, that it may merit a full post later.

Publishers Weekly critic and YA writer Gwenda Bond...[says], "Fantasy and SF aren't starting from the disadvantage of being segregated, and the publishers aren't desperately trying to keep the fantasy titles from brushing up against the mainstream stuff. Fantasy is, arguably, the mainstream in YA. It's a much more equal playing field."

[Scott Westerfield says,] "...A fantasy where a protagonist has to save the world is fundamentally more believable to a teen. Adults don't think they can save the world anymore, and they rarely feel their setbacks as acutely."
Do you know PJ? If not, go find out about her--and then buy her book! Tabitha's got an interview on her today, and you'll see mine up tomorrow.

On the Revision Process

Much is made of the writing process. But for me, at least, I'm starting to focus more on the revision process.

Segue! At my recent SCBWI-C conference, Alyssa Henkin did a manuscript critique for me (and my $50 payment...). She mentioned then, at at other speeches/workshops she did, the value of outlining before writing. She felt that it was necessary for a good manuscript to be outlined before writing. Which is all well and good to say, but I just don't work that way. Part of the joy of writing, for me, is to discover how the book ends, and an outline kills that.

But! I think an outline might work best in the revision process. See, I've realized that my first draft of a novel is, essentially, an outline. A 60k word fully fleshed out outline, but still, an outline. That was me getting the story on paper, and for me to get the story on paper, a sketch outline won't cut it--I need to have the whole she-bang. Now that I've got a 60k word "outline"/"rough draft", my revision process is really about filling in the plot holes and developing a much stronger second draft (or third, fourth, eight-hundredth). Looking at my rough draft in this way really helps me to refocus my revision process. I hate revising...but re-writing is another story...

WriterJenn has a post up about this and how she did an outline after she finished the book.
Outlined the book, and figured out where I was going to add scenes and where I was going to remove them. Where I had to move a scene, I used the outline to help me figure out the best way to do that. When it comes to first-draft writing, I'm a "plunger." Sometimes I use a very sketchy outline, but I drift from it as I write. However, I find outlines useful in the revision stage, when I have all the puzzle pieces and I'm deciding how to arrange them.
Although I'm looking at my first draft as an outline in and of itself, I'm also considering doing a true outline on the re-write. I've already re-arranged scenes and added different ones, enough so that I need some system to keep track of everything. When you're dealing with magic and mystery, you've got to have some sort of logical order!

Friday, October 17, 2008

Khaled Hosseini: On Writing

I'm sure you've heard of Khaled Hosseini. The author of the instant best-seller The Kite Runner and the other instant best-seller, A Thousand Splendid Suns, Khaled Hosseini is an Afghanistan native whose family had to apply for political aslyum when he was a child. Now living in California, Hosseini's first book was about the power of friendship in Afghanistan and his second was about women under the strict Taliban rule.

On Wednesday, Charlotte, NC, public libraries hosted an interview with Hosseini. I didn't take any notoriously long notes at the event as the interview will be aired on the radio on WFAE 90.7 in the Carolinas, and should be available for podcast download soon.

It was an amazing interview. Hosseini has lived through quite a bit, and I found the story of his life fascinating. But not as fascinating as the story of his writing career.

Hosseini was a medical doctor when he wrote a short story about his childhood in Afghanistan. This was the basis of The Kite Runner. After his wife read the story, she encouraged him to continue writing it, and after 9/11, she encouraged him to seek publication. He did, and the rest is history.

On the one hand, this is ultimately very depressing for me. I've got nearly 10 novels hidden under my bed, books that just weren't good enough for me to get published. I've literally written tens of thousands of pages of fiction. He wrote one short story that developed into a book, found a publisher relatively quickly (writing to publication was about 2 years), and his first book was an international best seller. Then, three years later, his second book was also an international best seller. And I've still got tens of thousands of unpublished pages.

To say nothing of the fact that his writing career has been so lucrative that he gave up being a doctor.

But, on the other hand, his talk was also inspiring and uplifting. He wrote for the same reasons we all write: to tell a story. He struggles over characters. He found writing difficult at times, and wrote and rewrote. He did not intend to write an international bestseller (much less two)--he thought his books would achieve only minor success among people interested in Afghanistan.

I really enjoyed hearing about how he approached craft. Hosseini said that he fell into writing; he never took a class, he never got a degree in writing. He just wanted to write, and it came naturally to him, like a piano player who can't read music but can play beautifully.

And, like all writers, he struggled. When I read The Kite Runner, I felt that the writing was beautiful. Just beautiful. And I imagined a scholarly, stately author who spoke and had roses fall out of his mouth. But no--Hosseini said that he went through many drafts, that he had to really work to make that beauty, and that it was not as easy as he makes it seem. The mark of a true genius, really.

In the end, I came away with this: Hosseini was telling the right story at the right time, and he told it well, and he worked to make his book beautiful...and that's all that's needed. I look at my own work now, and know that what I need to do is the same: find the right story, tell it as best as I can, and work to make the words sing.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

So, we meet again, Revisions. Dun-dun-dunn!

I've been (slowly) rewriting my latest WIP. Slowly. Because for the first time ever revisions = rewriting. The first manuscript didn't work, and there was no way to make it work. So I've got one Word document open on top of my screen, and another on the bottom, and I'm rewritten whole great swaths at a time.

Revisions seem to be on the mind of quite a few people recently. PJ posted about it and how she's working on making a great first line fit in with the rest of the manuscript. Kristin talked about rewriting in general:
This is what revising is for me. Writing; deciding it works; putting it away; taking it out again; realizing it doesn't actually work; rewriting; deciding it works; putting it away; taking it out again; realizing it doesn't actually work; rewriting... you get the idea.
And for me, right now, I'm about there. See, it's the set-up that's killing me. I've got a great plot, but I need to make it work.

Segue! I've recently gotten into Google Analytics (thanks Tabitha!) and most people find my site after googling plot vs. story. And, in all reality, that's my problem right now. I've got a plot--with twists and turns and everything--but my story needs work. My characters act out the plot, not themselves. It's more of a puzzle, really, to see what happens in the plot, than an actual story. Readers read to find out what happens, not because they care about the characters.

So while it's great and all that I can at least see my problem, it's the fixing it thing that's killing me. I've rewritten and rewritten and rewritten...the first five pages. Over and over again. And maybe I might possibly have it figured out.

Until I go back and re-read the new beginning tomorrow. :)

Side note: I do think that, at the very least, I can say that I've grown as a writer. I can actually tell what my problem is, and I can actually tear apart my work to fix it. That has been a slow process. But I'm getting there.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Author Interview: Lisa Shearin

Side note: Don't forget to chime in on the discussion question posted below! It had a later post than usual, and I'd love to hear more comments on the topic!

Lisa Shearin is author of the Raine Benares books published by Ace. Her books have received acclaim in both the romantic and the SF/F worlds. Now working on the third installment in the series, the first book, Magic Lost, Trouble Found, and the second book, Armed and Magical, are a combination of quick wit, wild adventure, romance, and magic that keeps readers entranced and on the edge of their seats. Lisa was kind enough to do an interview for this blog.

We can all read about your bio from the back of your book or your FAQ online. So, what's a completely random fact about you that most people don't know?
I’m an ordained deacon in my church.

As a child, what was your favorite book? Has your tastes changed since growing up?
Fairy tales of any and every kind. So when I grew up, I wrote my own.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
First I wanted to be an oceanographer – but not being able to swim (at least not then) kind of put a crimp on that dream. And at one point, I wanted to be a police officer. I think I was watching way too much S.W.A.T -- the 1970s TV series for those of you not born then. ; )

How much of you is in your book? Is there a character like you? Is a situation in the book derived from real life?
My husband says that I am Raine.

What was your timeline for the book? How long did it take to write, revise, submit, and finally, get published? How did you feel at these stages?
I’ve been writing novels since college, but the book that became Magic Lost, Trouble Found was started probably about 10 years ago. It took me about three years to write and revise. Now I write a book in 7-8 months from first idea to finished draft.

If your readers could only take away one emotion, theme, or idea from the book, what would you want that to be?
I just want my readers to have fun. If they can do that and lose themselves in the pages for a few hours or days, then I’ve done my job. ; )

What are your goals as an author? Where do you want to see yourself as a writer in 5, 10, 15 years?
I’ve recently become a national bestselling author; so of course, like many authors, I want the” Holy Grail of Publishing” – to be a New York Times Bestselling Author. I would love to see my books made into a series for the SciFi Channel. As a writer, I’d like to have at least another series going in the next few years.

What's the most surprising thing you've learned since becoming a writer?
Everything I’ve learned since becoming an author has been a surprise. When you’re dreaming of being published, you don’t think about dealing with the time crunch, the pressure of a deadline, book promotion, sales figures, the whole business end of writing, etc. But it’s the same way when you start any new job – there’s a learning curve. As you learn the ropes, it gets easier. And believe me, being a published author is the best job in the world. It’s a ton of hard work, but it’s the best job.

Beyond the typical—never give up, believe in yourself—what would be the single best advice you'd like to give to an aspiring author?
Read, read, read. Feed your muse with the works of others. And when you get ideas, write them down. Write them all down; your subconscious is trying to tell you something. Those thoughts and daydreams will be the basis of your future projects. If you’re like me, if you don’t write it down, it’s gone.

What do you consider to be your strongest talent in writing? Your weakest?
First drafts are a bear for me. I’m at my best once I have the story down; then I can relax a little and have fun filling it out, expanding on my ideas. Then I can see the book truly taking shape.

What's a writing pet peeve that you have?
See above – first drafts. ; )

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Discussion Question! Is giving away books good promotion?

I have been pondering this question for awhile: is giving away a free electronic version of a book good promotion? I've decided to turn to you, my trusty readers, for this one. After Alan Gratz announced he'd give away a copy of his first book in the Horatio Wilkes series for free, I was reminded of other such promotional ideas: Cory Doctorow is a well-known proponent of free distribution, as is JA Konrath. Even some of you, my trusty readers, make free e-books available to the masses.

My first taste of this sort of thing (if you don't count illegal .mp3 downloading) was Doctorow's Little Brother. He made available the free version, which I devoured and then purchased as a present for my husband. The free-book-promotion worked on me: it is the only reason I purchased the book. (Likewise, most of my illegal .mp3 downloads led to a purchase--if I tried it and like it, I bought it.)

Doctorow is still, in my opinion, the expert on this. As he says,
For me — for pretty much every writer — the big problem isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity (thanks to Tim O’Reilly for this great aphorism). Of all the people who failed to buy this book today, the majority did so because they never heard of it, not because someone gave them a free copy.

And that's true. I'm living proof that free-downloads-lead-to-sales.

But, is it viable? Is it a good marketing tool? Doctorow is a pretty well established author, and his free download policy is promotion in and of itself. Gratz and Konrath are giving away previously released titles to promote a new current release. Unpublished authors use free e-books to establish a readership for future books with no guarantee that any future book will be published.

I turn the questions to you (and I'm really eager to hear your reponses, so please share!):

Is giving away a free electronic version of a book a good marketing tool--does it lead to more sales?
Does it work better for established, developing, or unpublished authors? How?
Should free electronic versions of books be universal practice for all authors?
Does it work better as a promotion for a new release (which seems to be the standard) or in a
creative commons licensing setting where all work is available for everyone free?

FREE BOOK! Check it out now!

Remember Alan Gratz? He's got some big news! Read below:

Hello friends!

If you'll forgive a little blatant self-promotion, I am excited to
announce that my third book, Something Wicked, comes out this week! The
official on-sale date is Thursday, October 16th, but the way things go
it may show up on bookstore shelves sooner or later than that. Something
Wicked is a contemporary young adult mystery based on Macbeth and set in
the mountains of East Tennessee. It's the second book in my Horatio
Wilkes series, each of which is based on a different Shakespeare play.

To celebrate the release of Something Wicked, Dial Books is offering a
special promotion: they're letting you read the first Horatio Wilkes
mystery, Something Rotten, for free.

You read that right. Free. Gratis. Complimentary. No charge.

You don't have to register, you don't have to give your e-mail address,
you don't have to buy something else to read it.

All you have to do is click here:

Why are we letting people read Something Rotten for free while it's
still on sale at your favorite bookseller? Because the number one
challenge facing most authors is obscurity. Of all the people who didn't
buy Something Rotten today, the majority did so because they simply
didn't know it existed--not because someone gave them a free copy of it.
Like Cory Doctorow, author of Little Brother, says, we think it's more
important to get more people into our tent than to make sure everybody
inside bought a ticket.

So please click the link above and give Something Rotten a read if you
haven't already, and PLEASE HELP ME SPREAD THE WORD! This promotion from
my publisher took a lot of convincing on my part, and I want to show
them I'm not crazy! Tell friends, tell teachers, tell librarians, TELL
KIDS. If you have a blog, please blog about the offer! I want to do
everything I can to make sure as many people read Something Rotten
online before the promotion ends on November 30th, 2008.

Thanks so much!

Read more about Something Wicked:
Read more about Something Rotten:
Read Something Rotten FOR FREE: <>


Alan Gratz

Author of
Samurai Shortstop (Dial 2006)
Something Rotten (Dial 2007)
Something Wicked (Dial 2008)
The Brooklyn Nine (Dial 2009)


OMG. Congratulations, Christine!

And speaking of congratulations, why haven't you pre-ordered this book yet? It'll be coming soon!

The six things to never put in a query, with some snarkish commentary.

I love to write

I don't care. I only care about whether you can write well enough to tell a good compelling story.

On the difference between copyeditors and writers:

One of the reasons I love the English language so much is on account of how crazy flexible it is. I can bend and twist it. Sometimes make it go SNAP and BANG and BROKEN. But it always bounces back good and nice. It’s the job of copyeditors to disagree with me.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Conference Notes: Speech by Alyssa Henkin on Agents and Writing

This is it. The last post about the SCBWI-C Conference. I hope you've all enjoyed the series. It ended up being much longer than I'd intended, but I do like to take crazy long notes.

This was the final program of the conference, a parting speech by agent Alyssa Henkin. I know some people had felt at odds with her at the conference during a workshop she gave in which she touted outlines pretty heavily (although I was not at that workshop and do not know the details). Her speech was mostly about getting an agent's attention.

Alyssa Henkin noted at the opening of her speech that this is the "most exciting yet challenging time to be a children's writer." There is more publicity than ever on who does what (therefore less of a mystic about getting published), and there are twice as many books being published for children today. However, there are also many more writers and talent out there. The opportunities are higher, but so's the competition.

Right now, there is a lot of emphasis on commercial MG (yes!), but it's important for authors to also look for the hole in the market and fill the need. Henkin suggests keeping track of deals to be aware of both what's popular now and to think about what need there is in the market for the future.

In querying, Henkin suggests that you pay attention to the basics—don't have typos, address it correctly, etc. However, also be aware of the importance of a personal rejection and utilize the specific comments that are made in them. In the end, though, don't over-analyze rejection. "It doesn't matter what it means, it means move on." Correct, change, and fix what you can, then try again with someone knew.

To improve writing, Henkin notes that critique groups are helpful but limited, and suggests professional classes, either a MFA or a class. She says it's best to learn the basics before trying anything too complicated, and to always keep kid appeal in the back of your mind.

Henkin is a staunch supporter of outlining (much to the chagrin and disapproval of many conference attendees). She also suggests character sketches to help organize the writing. Reading and "seeping in other books" is essential, as is developing a strong plot and voice. Dialog is particularly important to Henkin: "I've passed on manuscripts with dialog that didn't sound like teens." Good language, such as unique (not clichéd!) similes, are what Henkin calls "secret weapon lines" and can help sell a manuscript. In the classic question of how long is too long to work on one manuscript, Henkin says not to belabor the same manuscript and be willing to work on new and different things.

Henkin concluded her speech with an analogy between query letter writing and What Not to Wear. The classic suit that Stacy always recommends in the show is having the right basics—a good word length for the manuscript (too long can break a deal immediately), right genre, etc. Layering clothes for dimension on the show is similar to layering plot in a brief synopsis (give the synopsis a sense of the story arc—see jacket flap copy for this). The pop of color of a black dress is how the author shows how his/her work is different from others and is unique. "Contrasting with accessories" is the extras you can add to make yourself stand out: a blog with the number of hits, a biographical background in children or marketing—the things that can help Henkin "spin someone" during marketing.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Your Questions Answered!

Side note: There's been lots o' posting today...don't forget to scroll down for the interview with Alan Gratz, and my bestest linkspam EVAR.

Sheri had a great question on the conference notes on Alan Gratz's workshop on MG vs. YA:
I wonder what Alan would say about this "new" age range they are calling the 'tweens, the official grey zone bridging MG and YA?

I emailed Alan this morning, and he was kind enough to send me this reponse:

The "Tween" age range is, indeed, a gray zone between middle grade and young adult. Look up "tween" and you'll get a variety of definitions, but I think the "tween" market is the upper end of middle grade--that 11 to 12 age. One of the best descriptions I've read of it is, "kids who desperately want to be teens, but aren't ready to stop being kids." To my mind, a majority of the Disney "teen" programs (shows like Hanna Montana and High School Musical) are aimed squarely at these kids. "Tween," like most categories, is a marketing device--another way to sell media to a very specific group of people. and yet there usually isn't a "tween" section in the bookstore. Most books that use some kind of age range coding system on their covers put "tween" books in the middle grade category, coding them as 8-12 or 9-12, while I think their appeal will be the upper end of that range.

I ran into a similar coding problem with Samurai Shortstop. The book deals with more mature themes--suicide, death, hazing, loyalty, honor, political tensions--but it also has no sex, drugs, or profane language. Most bookstores put it in the young adult section, which is where I think it belongs. Barnes and Noble shelved it in their "Young Readers" section, which is essentially their middle grade section. While I think it can be read by both ages, I think its core readership may fall into that 11-12 "tween" demographic. Off the top of my head, other books I think work as "tween": The Spiderwick Chronicles, the Sammy Keyes mysteries, Lauren Myracle's Eleven and Twelve, the Molly Moon series, Flush, Skullduggery Pleasant...

I'm interested to hear what others think though. There's certainly no industry consensus....

I, like Alan, would love to know what you all think. As Alan points out, there's not a set definition for this relatively new genre, and it would be wonderful to get some real dialog going on the subject! So...

What do YOU think?

Linkspam! With the most freakingest awesome library EVAR.

OMG. Guys, for real. OMFG. This is the best library. EVAR. I've talked to Jesus about it, and he says that maybe one day maybe I can have one. Screw the golden mansion, I want this.
(via bookshelves of doom)

Also via booksheleves of doom, a new children's author is on the scene. He did do Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, which is definite bonus points... I'm hoping for a younger take on Douglas Adams, but that's just me.

Lisa Shearin on polishing and editing--very apropos advice as I try to rewrite a novel. And, just like her suggestions for writing a novel, this post has very tight, concise writing.

This makes me depressed about humanity.

Via HipWriterMama: French writer wins the Nobel. You know, cause America's not good enough.
Bad news for American writers hoping for a Nobel Prize next week: the top member of the award jury believes the United States is too insular and ignorant to compete with Europe when it comes to great writing.
An editor's thought process on picking up a new title.

You know, Cybils and all

Author Interview: Alan Gratz

Are you all enjoying Alan Gratz week? :) I had the pleasure of meeting Alan at the SCBWI-C Fall Conference, but for those of you who couldn't be there, here's a little more about the author behind the books (Samurai Shortstop, Something Rotten, Something Wicked, and more to be released soon), and the man behind the workshop.

We can all read about your bio from the back of your book or your FAQ online or Amazon profile. So, what's a completely random fact about you that most people don't know?

When people meet me for the first time, they often say I don’t look anything like what they were expecting. Perhaps they think I’m going to show up looking like Woody Allen, or like Michael Chabon. (I wish!) But I’m a big guy—over six feet tall and around 200 pounds. I come from a family of football players. My dad played for the Air Force when he was stationed in Germany, and my uncle played lineman for the University of Tennessee—back in the days when a guy my size could actually be a lineman.

As a child, what was your favorite book? Has your tastes changed since growing up?

I wasn’t a great reader when I was a kid. I read a lot of classics—Robinson Crusoe, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Treasure Island—but I was more likely to be outside making up new adventures for my favorite movie characters, or inventing fake countries (and writing their constitutions). If any one book had a real impact on me though, I’d say it had to be Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth. I loved the puns and the wordplay.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

First it was a train engineer. Then, oh, sometime around 1977, it became a Jedi knight. But by second grade, I was already pretty sure I wanted to be a writer. I wrote my first book when I was in fifth grade—Real Kids Don’t Eat Spinach. It was a pastiche of a bestselling humor book of the day, Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche. My mom still has the book on a clipboard in a box under her bed.

How much of you is in your book? Is there a character like you? Is a situation in the book derived from real life?

The Horatio character in the murder mysteries dresses like me, and he goes to a private school like the one I went to for high school—but that’s about it. Horatio is sure of himself and always knows the right thing to say, but I wasn’t like that in high school. He’s what I wish I had been in high school. Cool, confident, in control. In that sense, he’s probably a total fantasy—there probably aren’t any kids who are really like that—but I wanted him to be sort of like Archie Goodwin from the Rex Stout novels, or Philip Marlowe from the Raymond Chandler novels. I wanted him to be the guy that all the women love and all the men want to be.

As to the setting, I put the books in my backyard—East Tennessee—both because it was familiar and because I wanted to highlight the place where I grew up. The pollution angle of the first book, Something Rotten, is based loosely on the Champion Paper / Little Pigeon River controversy that made headlines when I was a kid. The urban sprawl issue in the new book, Something Wicked, is something that I was acutely aware of even in high school as I made frequent trips to Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. In that sense, both of these books are very personal to me. They’re about the geography of my youth.

What was your timeline for the book? How long did it take to write, revise, submit, and finally, get published? How did you feel at these stages?

The research phase on a book is always the part that is different. For a book like Samurai Shortstop, I took about six months to just read books about Japan, Japanese baseball, etc. After that I construct a detailed, chapter-by-chapter outline, in which I include all the notes from my research that I’ll need to tell each individual scene. That usually takes me about a month, including time to hammer out the rough spots in the story. Then I usually spend another month on the first draft. The revision process takes me another two or three months, and then I’m ready to turn in the first draft. After that, a book may take as long as six months to a year to revise with my editor’s continuing input. For Samurai, it was about nine months for a first draft, and another year with my editor. For a book like Something Rotten, which had far less research, I think the overall time for the first draft was more like six months, with another half a year spent editing it the publisher.

Submission is a different thing altogether. I sold Samurai without an agent, so it was tedious. It took me about a year to find a publisher for it, submitting it through editors’ slush piles. I usually got responses on my query and first thirty pages around 3-6 months after I’d sent in my submission—although some took much longer, and others never responded at all. This was a trying time, and the rejections feel like punches to the gut, but at least the system still allows unagented authors to submit their manuscripts. No matter how frustrating the process is, I’m forever grateful that it exists at all.

If your reader could only take away one emotion, theme, or idea from the book, what would you want that to be?

From Samurai Shortstop, I think it would be that you have to honor your family, your country, and your past, but stay true to yourself in the present. Something Rotten, to me, is about taking action—bucking Hamlet’s indecision by making take-charge Horatio the main character. For Something Wicked, I think it’s that we always have to take personal responsibility for the mistakes we make and the evil that we do.

What are your goals as an author? Where do you want to see yourself as a writer in 5, 10, 15 years?

In five years, I’d like to have another five books out. In ten I’d like to have five more, and to have won an award or had a bestseller. In fifteen years I’d like to another five books out, and be able to spend more time at home and less time on the road promoting my books.

What's the most surprising thing you've learned since becoming a writer?

How difficult it is to get a book noticed. When you finish writing a book, you have to take off your writer’s hat and put on your publicist’s hat. At least that’s the way I feel. To me it’s not enough to write the best book I can. I want to get out and tell the world about it, make sure people know it’s on the shelves. That in itself can be a full-time job.

Beyond the typical—never give up, believe in yourself—what would be the single best advice you'd like to give to an aspiring author?

Never give up, believe in yourself, and—oh, wait. Seriously, best advice: What’s the hook to your story? What’s the one thing that makes your story stand out from the rest? Or, as my wife and I like to say when assessing any of our various creative ideas, “Where’s the wow?” That doesn’t mean your book has to have some Hollywood gimmick like, “It’s Aliens meets Titanic!” It just means that if your story is essentially Boy Meets Girl, what sets it apart from all the other Boy Meets Girl stories out there? It takes place on the moon? In an online game world? The boy is a geek and the girl is a rock star? Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is Boy Meets Girl—but his hook was that they are from different families with a blood feud between them. That’s gold. Look at your story with a critical eye and ask, “What makes my story special?” If you don’t have an answer—or your answer isn’t compelling enough—you’re going to have a very tough sell.

What do you consider to be your strongest talent in writing? Your weakest?

It’s funny. I always thought that plot was the weakest area of my work, until I gave myself a mandate that something had to happen to drive the plot forward in every scene in my books. As obvious as that sounds, it was a revelation. I didn’t always do that. I would sit down and write, but not every scene I wrote pushed my narrative. That’s essential. Once I began to see that in my own writing, my plots got tighter and more interesting. That was also when I sold my first book. I also like to think I’m good at dialogue, and the trick there, of course, is just to write like people really speak. I think the tendency when we write is to try to elevate our language, but when we talk we don’t worry about that so much.

My greatest weakness, by far, is setting and description. I can’t stand slowing down to talk about what the room looks like or what a person looks like. I sometimes ask kids at my school events to describe for me what Toyo, the main character of Samurai Shortstop, looks like. They sit there dumbfounded for a few seconds until I let them off the hook. I never say what he looks like. I don’t think I ever tell you how tall he is, or what color hair or eyes he has, or how thick or thin he is. I’m terrible! In later books, I’ve made deliberate attempts to stop and set the scene, and I think I’ve had success with those passages, but it’s something I have to consciously do. I never start with “It was a dark and stormy night.”

What's a writing pet peeve that you have?

My greatest writing pet peeve is the plot device where all the tension and conflict is predicated on one missing piece of information, and the character who has that piece of information withholds it for no good reason. I’m not explaining this well, and now, of course, I can’t think of a good specific example for you. Let me see if I can make one up: Monica notices Chandler keeps buying flowers on his credit card, but he never brings any to her. (I just made those names up.) She suspects he’s having an affair! Monica never just comes out and asks Chandler if he’s having an affair though. Instead, she does all kinds of sneaky detective work, and hilarity ensues. But Chandler, it turns out, is just designing a float for the Rose Bowl Parade. D’oh! If only Monica had just asked him straight up, or if Chandler had just told her about his project, we wouldn’t have spent thirty minutes in all this mess! Okay, that’s a really lame example, but you’d be surprised how often this plot device is used. It’s really weak—it’s the kind of conflict that can be evaporated by a simple question or a simple answer. That kind of conflict is never real enough to warrant our attention.

Thank you for the great interview, Alan! It's so wonderful to see where books come from...especially since we share the same backyard (Ten degrees of connection: my father's first job was at Champion Paper Mills).

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Conference Notes: Alan Gratz on YA vs. MG, part 4: Sell Your Book

This is a continuation of my notes on Alan Gratz's workshop on YA vs. MG. Click the side bar for parts 1-3.

Another issue in MG/YA is the "gatekeeper." For MG books, there is a gatekeeper involved—a parent, teacher, or librarian who determines whether or not the book will be given to the child. Don't write for the gatekeeper, but be aware of this limitation. On the other hand, a YA tends not to have a gatekeeper—they have the means to purchase their own books.

Because of this, the way MG and YA are sold is different. Gratz explained that frontlisted books are book in their first year of publication that are put in the front of the catalogue with promotion. Backlisted books are in the back of the catalogue, have been out for a year or more, and have little to no promotion. MG is harder to sell because 70% of MG sales are backlisted. Remember, the gatekeepers buy the books, so they buy books they know—classics like The Giver—and are more reluctant to buy the other books. So if you write a MG book, you've got a 30% chance to sell compared to the classics that are on the reading lists of teachers, the recommendation lists of librarians, and the fond memories of parents. On the flip side, YA is the exact opposite: 70% of their sales are from frontlisted books: YA kids, who buy their own books, are always looking for the next best thing, the newest, hottest trend.

In the end, the editors are looking for both MG and YA books that really stand out—MG books need to stand out from the backlisted classics, YA books need to stand out in the trendy market. Editors are looking for the books that sell.

First: voice. 70% of YA books are in 1st person because that's the easiest way to establish voice. Voice must be a part of what will sell that first page to the editor.

Both MG and YA books need to be about experiences unique from the typical kid. It could be classic scenario, like a baseball game, but something new and different, like a world championship, need to happen. Both age ranges are looking for stories about how kids different from them live.

Both MG and YA need to sound contemporary. The typical mistake of writers in these age ranges is to project their middle/high school experiences onto the characters. This does not work. For example, many of us did not have cell phones in high school, but now they are an essential part of contemporary high schoolers. You cannot forget cell phones in a high school story—it will be weird if there aren't cell phones.

Language is also important: your books need to sound authentic. Gratz even mentioned that he has hung out at malls, listening to teens, and stolen dialog straight from their mouths. Of course, temper your novel so it's not a Valley remake, but keep in mind authenticity.

And that's it! Everything you ever wanted to know about MG and YA...and more! I hope this was as helpful for you as it was for me!

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

As I Watch the Presidential Debates

To both candidates: Can't either of you just say yes or no?!
Besides, I'd rather hear what YOU think instead of what you say the other one thinks.

To Obama: *Yes* we *know* that McCain keeps slamming you instead of answering, well, anything, but that doesn't mean you should blather on.

To McCain: 1) I am not your friend. 2) You are not funny. 3) You blink weird. Just sayin'.

Conference Notes: Alan Gratz on YA vs. MG, part 3: Know Your Audience

This is a continuation of my notes on Alan Gratz's workshop on YA vs. MG. Click the sidebar for part 1 or part 2.

Consider what your audience wants. It's too easy to write the book for you, the writer, but you have to consider what concerns your audience.

Middle Grade
  • Ages 8-12
  • Care about personal loss (loss of parents, home, pets. They see bigger loss, such as 9/11, but are disconnected from the bigger picture beyond their person)
  • Concerned about isolation and being alone
  • Bullying is a big theme
  • School issues is classic
  • Gender issues arise, but it's more along the lines of "girls, ew!" not sexual
Young Adult
  • Ages 12+
  • Body image becomes an issue (Gratz mentioned that he didn't comb his hair until he was 14—before then, it didn't matter)
  • Adulthood is a concern—questions about what comes next
  • Sex is an issue. Before now, the boys felt funny about girls, but by high school, it's not funny any more.
  • Drugs and alcohol do exist in this world. Your character or readers don't necessarily to do them, but they know it's there.
  • Relationships tend to be absolute (OMG! I will never love again!)
  • Religion becomes a question—no longer blind acceptance, but they begin to question their faith.

Now, these are general assumptions, and these issues do cross-over, but the important thing to think about is how the characters fit into these roles.

Gratz gave an example of divorce. A MG character would look at the divorce of his parents in an internal way: who's house will I live at, where will my stuff be, how will it affect me personally. A YA character would consider these issues, too, but he'd also question if there is such a thing as true love, wonder if dad is a bad person because he cheated, wonder if he loves one parent more than another.

As Gratz said, "Your story always needs to be about the kid. Find the child's story."

Monday, October 6, 2008

Conference Notes: Alan Gratz on YA vs. MG, part 2: Challenges in YA and MG

This is a continuation of my notes on Alan Gratz's workshop on YA vs. MG. For part 1, click here.

The easiest age to write for, according to Gratz, is adults. Anything goes with adults; there are no limitations or restrictions. The next easiest is young adult—these characters can still drive, have access to money, are able and expected to go to places on their own. The hardest age to write for is middle grade because these characters are restricted. They have limited mobility, money, and access. MG books reflect this: The Westing Game takes place within a single apartment building.

In addition to this, with both MG and YA (but MG particularly), you have to answer the believability factor. Why, reasonably, is a kid the hero of the story? If you could end your story with your kid going to an adult, then it's not a good story. Don't just invent excuses for why the kids don't bring in the adults—you have to make a believable situation for why the kids take over the story.

A further challenge for MG books are the question of where the parents are. You must answer this question to some capacity. It's one reason why there are so many dead mothers in MG literature. But whether dead, missing, or neglectful, the parents must be dealt with in some manner. And once the parent question is answered, you also have to consider how the character operates in the world on his/her own. For example, a MG kid could take the subway in the city to get from place or place, but this wouldn't work in a rural setting.

For YA, any topic is fair game, and a YA author should be aware of the trends in the genre from the hardcore to the softer novels. Hardcore novels with themes of sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll are always popular with teens as a way for them to live vicariously through the characters. However, we as writers need to be aware that "we're past the days of the after school special" and that if we chose to write about such themes, we should portray them realistically, not in a preaching manner. Don't include a Full House lesson at the end of the story. Life doesn't wrap up in thirty minutes.

So, where should a YA author draw the line? At his or her comfort level. While it is essential that a YA author be aware of what's being published, it is also essential for the writer to write what he/she wants to write. A kid can spot fakeness a mile away, after all, and not every kid wants hardcore.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Conference Notes: Alan Gratz on YA vs. MG, part 1: What's the Difference?

Next week is Alan Gratz week! I've got a series of posts from his conference workshop, a book review of his latest work, Something Rotten, and an interview with him! Here's a preview of next week's series...

On the difference between YA and MG, the short answer is:
MG is for kids aged 8 or 9 to 12 years old, and YA is for 12 and up.

But the short answer is rarely the right one.

The first test of whether a book is MG or YA is the age of the protagonist. In general, the audience for the book should be about 2 years younger than the average reader. Therefore, the average reader of a MG book is between 10-11 years old, so the protagonist should be about 12 years old (about a grade higher up). There is a big difference between sixth graders and seventh graders, when those lovely hormones kick in.

But more than that, you have to look at the nature of the conflict:

Middle Grade
  • Internal conflict
  • Local problems
  • Threat can be big—i.e. the character needs to save the world—but motivation needs to be localized (character wants specifically to save family/friends)
  • Less concern for worldly matters (i.e. national politics—will know who is president, but won't really care)
  • Day to day concerns
  • Limited mobility—usually restricted to home, school
Young Adult
  • External conflict
  • Larger problems
  • Threat can be big, but character will consider the bigger picture in resolving the threat (i.e. will consider the consequences to the world, not just self, family, friends)
  • Rising concern for worldly matters—for the first time knows and has an opinion about politics
  • Concerned about the big picture on a long-term basis
  • More freedom and mobility (can drive)

Friday, October 3, 2008


FYI: The links to the SCBWI Conference have been moved to the sidebar.

BookEnds just had a great post on how the agent reads. She went through each kind of thing she reads (queries, partials, etc.) and what she looks for as she reads. The query stuff was good, but I actually found this more enlightening:
...never do I read the synopsis first, and I always wonder why people put the synopsis on the top of the chapters since the chapters are what you really want me to read, but that’s a post for another time.
Christy just put up her own take on the Tension workshop on her blog. She's formatting it in a little bit different of a way (and quite smart way) than how I did: she's taking the rules (or the first one) that Johnston talked about and applying it directly to some sample books. Good stuff; go check it out.

As writers, grammar is essential. Via swivet, a diagram of one of Sarah Palin's (rambling, insane, meaningless) sentences. So funny!

I can has teacup pig? So cute!

Conference Notes: Talk with Stephanie Greene and Martha Mihalick

Stephanie Greene is the author of the recently released MG novel, The Lucky Ones, and Martha Mihalick worked on editing the book for Greenwillow. The two ladies sat down and discussed the process of the book from writing to publication.

What struck me the most was how much work was involved in the development of this book. The original writing of the book seemed to flow for Greene—she mentioned that this was her "gift book" that Shipley alluded to. But when the book was sent to Greenwillow, there seemed to be quite a flaw: there wasn't really much of a plot. Mihalick's exact statement in her comments to Greene were: "But what happens?" Because the book had started off as a story about a place—not the characters—the plot was lacking.

I think that if the editors at Greenwillow, Mihalick included, had not believed in Greene's ability so much, and if Greene had not already proven herself with past books, and if Greene's writing was not already so beautiful, this book might not have made it. That's my impression, anyway. The plot and character development was originally lacking, but the writing was so strong that the editors helped Greene figure out how to develop the other elements in her book to create The Lucky Ones.

Greene didn't set out to write a gritty novel. The Lucky Ones is about growing up and deciding who you will become. When she received notes from the editors at Greenwillow, she put them away for three months, then picked and chose from the notes what needed to be fixed. She printed the entire book out and spread it on her kitchen table, chapter by chapter. She looked at the revision process as a layering process—layering in plot, details, characters to develop her story. She added tension—a hint of a threat to the happiness of the characters—in the first chapter; she made her characters' actions consistent; she put the parents at risk. In short, she kept raising the hurdle in small ways, and was able to develop a subtle, elegant plot within a beautifully written piece about a place. This worked for Mihalick: "You don't need radical changes—small details developed the overall ideas [in The Lucky Ones]."

Notes about the editing process:
  • Editors don't fix minutia; they ask questions. Their job is to poke holes and go at it from all sides—but they don't expect every question to be addressed, they just want to show the writer what kinds of questions arise.
  • Editors don't suggest how you rewrite the book—they just ask the questions for you to then revise.
  • Editors are all impatient for revisions—but they are also patient and give the writer time so that they can get the best possible work from the writer.
  • Editors take their time with a work: it will take a day at least to read the story and delve into it thoroughly.
  • Stephanie Greene: "It gets easier [to revise] as you write more books."
  • Greene has never had an editor rewrite language at the line editing process—it was always notes on things, but never rewritten language.
  • Mihalick: The value of a critique group is that they ask questions and poke holes. Think about why the person is missing the point you're trying to make, and fix it from there.
  • Mihalick: It's not about what's wrong with the manuscript, it's about what could be better.

We Interrupt Your Regularly Scheduled Program...

...for a short bit of political commentary.

So, you know how in Futurama there's that episode where Leela becomes the first major-league blurnsball player, but she's really terrible and they only picked her because she was pretty and drew a crowd (that laughed at her)? And how all the women who were really trying to be true to their sport got all mad, because Leela was basically a joke, and everyone knew it but her?

OK, so honestly...isn't Sarah Palin a bit like that?

Thursday, October 2, 2008


Courtesy of kt literary, this comic which explains the inverse relationship of made-up words to good writing.

Galley Cat's article on YA and the future of publishing
...sites like these two give us hope that the naysayers have simply lost touch with an audience (a bunch of audiences, really) that still exists and will continue to exist... and that the future of publishing will be led by those who are able to bring that audience together.
Scroll down for an agent's timely advice on revisions:
Everyone is frightened of revision, deep down. Because it means pulling up everything you’ve carefully put together thus far and opening it up once again to the cold and dispassionate light of analysis, rigour and logic.

[On the writing profession] It is craft. It is art. It is music. It is philosophy and psychology. It is structure, It is all things creative and analytical, all rolled into one form. It is well worth learning in any way you possibly can...

Doggie Says No More Writing For You!

PS: Yes, those are Happy Bunny stickers on my keyboard. After the letters on my keys faded, I put those on...only now the stickers are peeling off!

Is Newbery Losing Touch with Children?

I found this recent article on the Newbery award via bookshelves of doom. Our very own Anita Silvey wrote it, and she raises an excellent point: most of the recent winners are not very popular.

...a librarian at my local public library confessed that she had no interest in learning “what unreadable Newbery the committee was going to foist on us this year.” Then, a few weeks later at an education conference, I was startled to hear several teachers and media specialists admit they hadn’t bought a copy of the Newbery winner for the last few years. Why? “They don’t appeal to our children,” they explained patiently.

Conference Notes: John Claude Bemis on Fantasy Settings

Members of SCBWI-C: Go to the SCBWI-C page and download the handouts from this workshop—they are very good.

The best thing I got from this workshop was the idea that in a fantasy or science fiction work, the setting isn't just the physical time and place the story is set in, it is also the rules of that world. Wow. That is just seriously brilliant.

Bemis used Philip Pullman's Golden Compass* as an example. The setting in this (horrible) book is not just the physical world or the time period of the world, but also the rules about daemons and talking polar bears and golden compasses.

At its core, SF/F is speculation. The question "what if." Test your fictional world. Add in a "what if" and evaluate how that would change the world and the rules of that world. Bemis started us off with the idea of "what if everyone had six fingers?" This led to interesting discussion: perhaps people with five fingers would be considered deformed, music would be played differently, maybe the sixth finger would have an evolutionary purpose, such as a second opposable thumb. Consider all the possibilities and add those possibilities into the text of the story.

Bemis suggests looking for unusual connections in developing the world of our SF/F stories. Anyone can find history in a museum—a good book will find history in a hardware store. Also, use lateral leaps in writing. Break up "sets". Everyone associates vampires with evil—so turn it on its head and write a good vampire. Switch around elements: we associate zombie with graves, but set a zombie story in a cheerful high school and you've got a more unique story. Use frames, such as the Passion of the Christ in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.**

One activity I particularly liked was called "Asking the Oracle." When you have a problem in your text—i.e. you need to get a character from one place to another, but don't know how to do it, then "ask the oracle." Use a completely random thing and create a meaning around it. You could open a random book on your shelf to a random page and pick the first sentence of the book—then make whatever that first sentence is be the answer.

To give us practice, Bemis had use write down a problem in our work. In my current WIP, I've got a murderer. I know why he goes crazy and kills people, but I wanted to know what the straw that broke the camel's back for him could be. Once we wrote the problem down, Bemis gave us a random answer: "Twinkle, twinkle, little star." Now this answer worked perfectly for me—I'm writing a SF. So, I came up with some ideas based on this random event and one of them—the murderer hears a child singing the nursery rhyme and knows that child will never see real stars—is a scene that I'll be using in my writing, something I'm considering developing into an entire motif.

Bemis does give us one warning with writing SF/F: Don't make anything possible. "Fantasy, more so than any other genre, needs rules."

*I hated The Golden Compass. I don't think much of Philip Pullman--he sounds like a bit of a self-righteous jerk to me, and he killed off too many good characters in his Sally Lockheart series. Also: he pissed me off with his views on religion. Besides, the writing just wasn't that good. So, ha! I'm not gonna link to his stupid book :P

**Ha, ha! I will link to CS Lewis's book. Take that, Pullman!***

***Yes, small, mostly meaningless victories amuse me.