Saturday, August 30, 2008

And now for something completely different*

*Please, someone, get title :)

So, you know that scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail when the lady from Castle Anthrax just keeps going on, and everyone in the whole freaking movies screams GET ON WITH IT!!!

Yeah, Fly by Night is like that.

Which kinda sucks, because I was looking forward to reading it.

Friday, August 29, 2008

The Writing Process at Work

Whew. This first week of teaching has been rough. Too many changes--new room, new principal, new kids, new lesson plans!

I promise not to bore everyone with the details of teaching life, but I can't resist here. My mother found almost 100 art prints from around the world. I gave one to each kid (I teach sophomores), and after teaching them about common symbols and the basics of world geography and religion, I had them write a story based on the picture using the setting and culture of the area from which the painting originates.

Students today very rarely get the chance to write creatively. The focus, even in (especially in) English classes is analysis writing, not creative.

At first, the students just looked at me. They could write about anything? Anything, I confirmed. They could make up a story? Yes. Like out of their heads? Of course. And it didn't have to be real? Nope. Could they write about anything they wanted? Anything. Really? Yup.

Once they got the basic assignment, the creative-killing questions came. I told them that the five-paragraph standard was crap (imagine their shock). I told them that grammar counted--just because they were allowed to make a creative story didn't mean that grammar could be creative, too.

And, slowly, they started to write. The girls made fairy tales with pictures of Saint George and the Dragon. The boys wrote stories about war with the Greek statue photographs. And then they really started getting creative...

A girl with an illustration of a Babylonian garden wrote a story where the birds in the garden were competing for the love of the peacock. Another who had a photograph of an elaborate gold pocket watch wrote a story about a stolen family heirloom and the quest to recover it. One student wrote in the first person using diary entries.

It killed me that, even when they got started, they still felt like being creative wasn't "allowed." They asked if dialog was OK. They wanted assurance that they were allowed to have plot. They still didn't believe they could write about anything and make up the story.

This may be the only creative writing assignment we have time for in my class. There are state tests that have to be passed, whether they are worthwhile or not. But, for a few days at least, my students realized how creative creative writing could be.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Q&A With Agent Molly Friedrich

Poets and Writers has a great oft-linked article on veteran agent Molly Friedrich. I heard about it from many different sources, but when I saw a brief summary of it on PubRants, I decided that I needed to read the whole thing.

And wow.

Remember that scene in Harry Potter 4 when Fred and George are talking about Moody, and they're all like "He knows, man, he knows, he's been there." Yeah, she's like that.

She said it better than me:
[On starting out in publishing]
I honestly had nothing better to do than to be ferociously ambitious. And there was nothing stopping me.
How perfect is that? Whether you're an editor, an agent, a writer, a monkey-trainer, whatever...doing something with ferocious ambition...that's the way to be.

[On what's most important in a book]
First of all, is there anybody out there who doesn't know that the easiest thing to sell is plot? But the thing that everybody wants is an original voice. And the thing that's kind of stuck in the middle is character.
What a perfect summary. Sometimes, I think I focus too much on plot+character=story. The voice is the sticking point. This is just a brilliant line. And, of course, she goes on to explain just what voice is:

[On voice]
Now, what is an original voice? Well, think of it like this: Go to Bonfire of the Vanities and close your eyes and pick a page and have someone read you two paragraphs. If you can't identify those paragraphs as the rhythms and cadences that belong to Tom Wolfe, you're finished. I'm convinced that eight times out of ten, with Melissa Bank, you could do the same thing. Now that is saying something. ...

I fell in love with Terry's writing because she had an original voice. Go back and read the first page of Mama, when Mildred, the mother, is wielding an ax. It's like, "Whoa!" It springs off the page. That's why it happened. But Terry built a career by believing in herself more than anybody else did. She really worked hard.
Could you open your manuscript up right now, look at a random page, and hear a distinct voice coming from every word? Could you send your mom page 54 of your manuscript, page 54 of your friend's manuscript, page 54 of a published book someone else wrote, and know that your mom, who should know your voice and style better than anyone, could be able to pick out which page 54 is yours?

[On making it in publishing]
But when this person started sobbing and saying, "What can I do?" I was very gentle with her. I said, "The thing is, it's not easy."
Friedrich is talking about an editor/agent thing here, but it still applies to anyone in the writing business. The thing is, it's not easy.

[On determination]
I think that's how it works. You hang around long enough, and you insist, like Scarlett O'Hara just before the intermission, "As God as my witness...this book will sell!" And if it does sell, and you were right, and everyone else was wrong, then you build up credibility. But it takes time. Here I am, thirty years later. I'm old! I'm fifty-five years old! But seriously, it is a business of staying with it long enough to really build up credibility and respect and a reputation for honesty. Always for honesty. God, this is a small business.
I once had a professor who said that I reminded him of Scarlett O'Hara, and that really made me mad...I hated Scarlett! She's a self-obsessed b! But...she got her way. I'd be Scarlett for my books. I don't want to be Scarlett in life, but in books, yes, that's what I'd be. That's what I probably have to be.

[On what sells]
[Question] Tell me what you're looking for when you're reading a first novel or memoir.
[Answer] That's so easy. I'm looking for the first page to be good. Then I'm looking for the second page to also be good. Really! The first page has to be good so that I will go to the second page and the third and the fourth.
This is what it takes. A page turn. When I first heard about agents wanting only the first five pages with a query, I was mad. Recently, after a rejection, my husband was trying to console me: "They just read a few pages! How could they know how good you are by that?" But it's true. You can know whether a book is good or bad by whether you turn the page. Look at how many books you put down after the first page in the bookstore.

[On writers in the technology age]
Which was partly bad, obviously, but it was also a good thing because they really got to focus on their work and confront what was on the page. They weren't distracted and hyped up by too much information.
This hits close to home. If I had written my most recent manuscript without the Internet, I wouldn't be so worried about whether it's MG or YA. I'd just have written it and been done with it. How good is too much information? I've certainly spent hours--days--questioning my genre--questioning the label! ...but if questioning the label means questioning the writing means improving the writing...maybe it's not a bad thing. I'll compromise: as long as something done with writing, it's worth something.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Positive Spin

I wasn't going to blog today. Today was the first day of school with kids, and I'm exhausted. Everything went wrong. Staples ate paper. Kids were lost. Faculty meeting was long. A projector blew up. Rain. Lots of a rain. Just a crummy day in general.

Then I come home...and the crummy day continues. Had a rejection waiting for me. Burned supper...and nearly burned the house down when I forgot to turn off the stove eye. The TV show I watch was a re-run...and a bad one, at that.

I'm way behind on critiques for my groups, so I sat down for two hours to work on them. The whole time, I'm thinking I'm not going to blog today. I have nothing positive to say. This day just sucks.

Then I finished with my critiques. And somewhere in reading my friends' works, and blogging on my crit group site about their work, and submitting my new book to one of the groups, and, in general, just immersing myself in the writing world (even though I wasn't writing for myself) made me feel calm and happy and that life isn't worthless and this writing thing is pretty cool. Just doing something with writing makes a bad day good...and makes me know that even when it sucks, this is still what I want to do.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

A new YA and MG agent

Colleen Lindsay of FinePrint Literary Management announced on her blog that the agency is adding a new acquiring agent, Joanna Stampfel to their staff. As I know some of you (like myself) are actively searching for an agent, I thought I'd pass along the info and post part of it here:
Here's what Joanna's looking for, in her own words:

Childrens: Chapter books to middle grade - covering any and all topics. If fantasy, it had better be very unique. Love a good school story, and always looking for humorous boy reads.

YA: contemporary to sci-fi and everything in between...again, if full-out fantasy, it had better be different.
I was particularly interested in the fact that she enjoys Ancient Greek studies, since my latest book is based on Bellerophon. And, after the suggestion from the Ask Daphne site, I've decided to label my work as upper MG and know that ages might have to be revised later. I might change this after attending the workshop by Alan Gratz on the differences between MG and YA at the SCBWI-Carolinas conference next month.

Friday, August 22, 2008

An agent on MG/YA

I've been so out of it lately...starting school this year has been more hectic than usual due to a lot of changes at my school.

Anyway, I posted a question on the Daphne Unfeasible blog a while back, and the agent, Kate Testerman, responded! Here's some of her answer:
Now, there is a lot of crossover potential between these age ranges, and as we all know, we expect kids to read up, so a 12 year old may expect or want to read about a 14 year old.... Let an agent decide what your book is, and how she can market it to an editor. Yes, she may suggest a change in your protag's age -- so be ready to defend or consider if your story would still work if your MC was 14 -- or 16.
Which doesn't give me an easy answer for my dilemma, but does make me think that it might be OK for me to just let my book stand as is. I'm not entirely sure about her suggestion that I just leave off the age range in my query, but I am starting to be a little less obsessed with the question.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Plot vs. Story

This is a debate I've never heard of: plot vs. story. Sherwood Smith has a great post on her blog that details the difference. What I'm going to talk about, though, is her t-shirt.
During the three days a year it's cool enough hear to wear long sleeves, I have a beloved Writing Shirt...it says [on the back], Plot is a literary convention;story is a force of nature And it's signed by Teresa Nielsen Hayden. [ETA: For sale right here.]
I think that one sentence sums it up. Anyone can have a plot, just like anyone can have a metaphor or a simile or alliteration. It's just a literary convention: if you know what it is, you can recreate it. Story, however is more. If you have a series of events, you have a plot. But to have a story, then you actually have to be good.

To Prologue or not to Prologue

I've heard that agents/editors dislike prologues (usually, I think, in submissions as it doesn't show a true sense of the tone/style of the book).

I've gone back and written a prologue in my story because whether it becomes MG or YA, I think I've got to show at least a hint of how dark the novel will become. Now, usually even I hate prologues--I skimmed the ones in the Twilight series, I skip most of the ones in epic fantasy tomes (they're just going to reveal a prophecy or something anyway). So I guess I'm being a bit hypocritical, writing a prologue...

...but it is the perfect answer to my worry that the overall tone of the book is hidden by the mild opening, and it gives some insight to the villain's character.

What's y'all's opinion on prologues?


PS: My mother, who has no idea about my angsty-decision for MG or YA, just sent me an email in response to my question on whether or not my ms. was more for middle school kids or high school kids. Her words: Aren't they both the same??? :)

Saturday, August 16, 2008

MG or YA?

Recap: I've written what I thought was a YA fantasy, but many felt the tone/writing would make the ms. better suited to be a MG fantasy. My characters are currently 15 years old. I've been entirely up in the air about whether to age-down my characters, or age-up my manuscript.

After hours of researching MG and YA literature on the net, a fervid email conversation on the SCBWI-Carolinas listserv with some helpful advice from YA author Alan Gratz, I realized it came down to this question:

Why are my characters the age they are now?

The answer has to be more than "because" no matter what I decide to do.

If it's an MG, then the answer MUST be MORE than
  • because they aren't having sex
  • because it's easier to write it that way
  • because the action happens within a school
  • because there's magic
If it's a YA, then the answer MUST be MORE than:
  • because there is sex
  • because they are 15 years old (age is nothing more than a number in writing--they have to act their age--they have to be 15, not just be 15 because I say they are)
  • because they are in high school (again, as an author, I have to make the high school a character, much like how NY is a character in Sex in the City)
So, when I ask myself what should age my novel should be aimed at, the answers I come up with are:
  • the lessons they learn in class are above the average middle schooler's head
  • the ultimate battle they must fight is very dark, dealing with themes of temptation and redemption that might not be entirely appropriate for mid-grade
  • the magic is school-based, which is a trope of mid-grade novels
  • the story is focused more on self than on self's role in the world, which is a trope of mid-grade novels
  • there is no romance, thoughts of romance, sex, or even infatuation in my novel. Anywhere. The characters are more focused on themselves and their discoveries than on the opposite sex and what can be discovered under their pants.
All in all, this means I've got some items definitely in the mid-grade camp, and some in the YA camp. So what does that mean? My novel cannot stand as is. I've got to go deeper into revisions and resolve these problems to fit into a specific age-range. And it's still half and half as to which I could do.

I think aging down the characters would be easy--but aging down the novel would be difficult. There are dark themes involved, and issues that I'd think would be easier for a high schooler to understand and identify with than a middle schooler.

I think making the tone of the novel closer to YA would be easy--but I can't lose the tropes that are more typical in MG (i.e. magic in school, witchy teacher). I can easily add in more realistic details to make the characters seem more their age, but the tropes of MG are essential to this novel.

The question still arises: whether to age-down my characters, or age-up my manuscript. There is no clear answer here, just a choice that I'm going to have to do one or the other.

Which Comes First, the Plot or the Characters?

Are you guys sick of posts about revisions yet? I know I am...but not as sick as revisions themselves!

So after reviewing Shannon Hale's The Goose Girl yesterday, I discovered that she has a blog. And the most recent post is about revisions. I particularly liked how she ended the post:
But know this--all writers, novice or professional, have to get our hands dirty. We have to cut things we love, break things and fix them, tear out scenes and fill the gaping holes, discover new subplots and make them work with the whole. Never, never say, "That's close enough." Fix it! Change it! Do the dirty work. Getting grimy is the only way to shine.
This is true. And while I whine incessantly about revisions, I do know that they are needed and that my book will get nowhere as is.

Hale also mentioned the writing process:
Every writer's process is different. Ann (A.E.) Cannon pointed out that most writers either start with character then find the plot, or start with plot then find the character (and of course it's the combination of those two, character and plot, that make story).
Which are you? Do you start with plot or character? For me, it depends on the novel I'm working on. I'd say that usually I'm a plot girl, though, and for The Amnesia Door, it was absolutely plot--I built the characters to fit the plot.

So, what about you?

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Someone, please write a book based on one of these...

This site, which records actual conversations between workers and customers, is addicting. Also the reason I've not done any revisions today yet (that, and mowing the lawn). I would seriously love it if someone could include a situation like the ones listed in this website into a story. Only problem is: most of these prove the old adage that truth is stranger than fiction. Here's an example:

(I was ringing up a old lady when another old lady in my line recognized the first lady.)

Old Lady #1: “Oh hey! I didn’t see you there!”

Old Lady #2: “That’s okay… I didn’t recognize you with clothes on!”

Me: “What?!”


Also, I trolled around and found this blog, which comments on a recent article that found, aparently, the people who read fiction are, well, better that people who don't. This reviewer's comments were rich:
Toll through them [your friends] in your mind. I bet you a beer that the ones you like best are the ones who read for fun.

The Struggling Writer

This bit from PubRants made me feel kinda good about life in general:
All writers have felt like they’ve been kicked to the curb at some point in their career (be it trying to land an agent, accessing an editor at a publishing house, or sifting through the myriad of rejections). You are not alone and the best you can do is to keep writing because that’s what writers do. All established authors have at least one manuscript that will never see the light of day. Many have several.
Revisions are not going so well...I was knocked out for two days instead of just one, and have over a hundred pages to make up for the absence today.

And I had a pretty good idea about changing something in the end (not comfortable with that end...now that I've got the beginning OK, I've got to go change the end). Anyway, making those changes mean making a TON more...so, *sigh*. Off to re-write land.

I wish I had as positive an outlook on revisions as Christine has:
But once I have the bones in place I can go back and put on the skin (how's that for kind of a gross image).
Best. Analogy. Of revisions. EVAR.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Such a Geek

So, check out my links lists down the page. Yup, upgraded to a blog roll! It's so shiny and new....and now I don't have to obsessively click on my fav blogs to see if they've updated when I should be working on revision (hate revisions! hate! hate!)....

Poetry Tuesday? Also, writing the wrong thing.

So I was reading Graceling author Kristin Cashore's blog today, and was just struck by how beautiful the poem (actually, song lyrics) she posted is:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything --
That's how the light gets in.
- Leonard Cohen
Then I continued reading the post and found this:
Anyway, I wrote many, many pages, about half of which I crossed out, but that's okay, that's what this book seems to be like -- I write the wrong thing about 5 times, and that brings me around to the right thing. I hope?
That's what my revisions have felt like for me lately. A whole lot of cut, rewrite, cut, rewrite. I wrote the first chapter FIVE times. Five. Five. Carefully laid out chapters are getting slashed and rearranged and cut and repasted and cut again and...

...argh.

Query Letters

Colleen Lindsay, agent at Fine Print (the same agency that has the infamous Janet Reid), posted today a copy of a query letter that worked for her with comments on what was done well. Then, the author, Kelly Gay, posted the same query letter on her blog with her own comments. It's pretty interesting to get the two different view points on the same letter--why Kelly wrote it, and why Colleen liked it. Especially interesting for me as she's going to be getting a query from me in September, after revisions :)

Monday, August 11, 2008

Revision Methods, or What I Learned from Crit Groups

When I first joined a crit group, I thought it would be simple as pie, we'd exchange chapters, discuss, and be happy wonderful writers! Rainbows and cookies would fall from the sky!

I have, of course, learned much, much more. I've noticed in my recent revisions, however, that I've learned some great stuff about revising from my crit groups, too, completely by accident.

Spotting Trouble: People used to tell me that something didn't work in my writing, and I didn't get it. It was soooo much easier to spot it in other people's writing than in my own. But having done the crit group thing for almost a year now, I've realized better what I've done wrong in my writing, and I'm quicker to spot my own mistakes.

Understanding Trouble: Those writerly things that people said, you know, about ambiguous stuff like voice and pace and point of view...I didn't get that. But when I noticed it in other people's work and made a comment on it, and then someone made the exact same comment about a passage in my work...well, it makes sense now.

Revision Method: My super-awesome writing group, The Wunderkin, makes comments using the Comment function in word. Say you're reading text from your group, and you think something needs description. You just highlight the text and add a comment, and then the text is now highlighted in a bright color and has a little balloon trailing off it so you can write your own comment or question. It's simple as pie, and so much easier to read than changing the color of text or making line notes like "such-and-such needs work on line 23 of page 4" (at least imo). In MS Word on PCs (doesn't work like this on Macs), just hit ctrl+alt+m and a fancy comment box shows up!

This is something we do when we pass around files, but it's something that I've started doing in my own work. As I'm reading through my pages, I may notice a quick-fix: just rearrange a sentence or cut a paragraph and it's better. Or, I might notice something that might a hardy fix: my characters say they meet on Wednesday, but didn't I say in Chapter 4 it was Tuesday? I put this sentence here to foreshadow something later, but then the book went in a different direction. Do I explain how this bit of magic works here, or later?

For these kind of fixes, those that will take a lot of thought and usually flipping between pages and chapters, I've started to just make a comment with Word's comment function. All I do is hit ctrl+alt+m and make myself a little note: check dates later; add scene about this in Chapter 10; compare this paragraph to the one after the character do x. That sort of thing. Then, when I do my final read-through, I can easily change dates or swap scenes... and I haven't lost the momentum of reading through tedious back-tracking.

Short Rant

Please do not attempt to write a book until you know grammar.

That is all.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Book Review: Cory Doctorow's Little Brother

I actually finished this one awhile back, before I went to Europe, but other stuff made me forget to review it. There were lots of reasons for me to pick it up: many reviews, including several articles about how relevant and important this book is in today's world.

Plot: Marcus and his friends happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time with a terrorist group attacks San Francisco. But the terrorists don't end up as Marcus's enemies...it's Homeland Security that's taking away all their rights, and Marcus organizes his friends to fight back, hacker-style (jeez, that sounds stupid when I say it like that).

Writer's Review: So what can we, as writers, learn from Little Brother?

1. Smart writing: Doctorow peppers his book with real facts about technology and hacking--even the husband, with all his l33t love, said it was pretty accurate. Doctorow, in short, not only doesn't dumb down the technology of his world, he explains it.

Not only that, but he doesn't hit you over the head with the message. Some reviews disagree with me. But, given that Doctorow is basically making a parallel between terrorism and anti-terrorism, I think the message, while certainly there, is still subtle enough to require thinking to see it.

2. Relevance: Some books are just perfect for right-here, right-now. This one is. In the face of an anti-terrorism America, after 9/11 and with all the hype surrounding it, this book is perfectly relevant to the world today. Does it go a bit over the top? Yes. Does it portray the "bad guys" in a completely flat, 2-dimensional way? Yes. But that makes it authentic. To most of us, terrorism is a faceless, 2-dimensional evil. Sure, Marcus's enemy is the USA Homeland Security...but the faceless-ness and 2-dimensionalism still exists for it, as well.

3. Distribution: Technically, this has nothing to do with the book itself. But...Cory Doctorow gives his book away for free. I find that fascinating, in part because it works. I read the free online version, liked it, and bought a copy for the husband as a gift. His logic is, if you like it, you'll buy it--and that an author's worst enemy isn't theft, but being unknown. I'd love to find an article out there about this topic from an agent/editor view point. Obviously, this is something the music and movie industry is going through as well, but it's so cool for me to see it in the book world, too.

Goal

When writing, it helped to set myself goals and deadlines. So now that I'm revising, let's try that again:

Sunday: Re-read and make comments/minor corrections to pages 1-100
Monday: Re-read and make comments/minor correction to pages 101-220
Tuesday: Begin rewrite of pages 50-100
Wednesday: Nothing--got plans
Thursday: Rewrite pages 101-150
Friday: Complete re-write
Saturday: Final read-through; prepare for critique!

That should get me done with revisions before school starts (next Monday!). And although I'll be sending pages to my crit group, I think for the most part, I'll be setting the manuscript aside until mid-September, when I'll be attending my state's SCBWI conference. That will give me distance, but also a deadline to pick the book back up after the conference so that I can start querying in October.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

In honor of tomorrow's post...

...in which I'll be reviewing Little Brother by Cory Doctorow, here's a link to his recent article in Locus Online.

On writing for younger audiences:
We all read for entertainment, no matter how old we are, but kids also read to find out how the world works. They pay keen attention, they argue back. There's a consequentiality to writing for young people that makes it immensely satisfying.
Link via Ask Daphne.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Book Review: Megan Whalen Turner's The Thief

I found this book in part because of bookshelves of doom's review of the sequel. When I ordered The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner, I didn't know that it had been honored with a Newbery. Which should indicate how good it is.

Plot: Gen (male) is a thief--a good one. A good one who stole the king's magus's seal ring. A good one who got caught and is languishing in jail. In walks in the magus with a plan: if Gen helps him steal an ancient artifact--a task that has led to the deaths of better men than him--then Gen can have his freedom back. The artifact is part of a tradition so important to the people it's tied to their mythology: a thief who steals the artifact and gives it to someone else will make the recipient the ruler of the land Eddis. The king wants the artifact so he can claim Eddis--and the hand of the current Queen of Eddis.

But that's just the beginning.

Writer's Review: So what can we, as writers, learn from The Thief?

1. World-building: Turner reveals in the author's note at the end that Ancient Greece is her rough inspiration for the world of The Thief, but it's a very loose adaptation. True, I thought of Greece in her world description--lots of olives and rocky soil were involved. And some of the gods reminded me of Greece (i.e. Mother Earth, Father Sky, Hephestia). But it was, really, a loose adaptation.

Turner truly created a whole new world for her characters. It's in depth. There are myths--perfectly done myths that sound as if they are thousands of years old and developed by word of mouth. There are landscapes so distinct that I could tell whether the characters were in Sounis, Eddis, or Attolia just by the descriptions of the land. People had distinct racial and cultural backgrounds. If you want to know what an entire new world looks like from the ground up, read this book.

2. Voice: This is another good example of a great first person point of view with a distinctive voice. The story's told from Gen's point of view, and he's got a very distinctive voice--a cynical, snarky voice that fits his character perfectly.

3. Plot Twist:
You know O. Henry's awesome plot twists. Yeah, this was O. Henry worthy. If you wanna know the twist, highlight the text below. If you don't--and if you haven't read the book, don't ruin it for yourself--just know that this book had a twist that I didn't see coming a mile away. It was really good, very surprising...but so well done that by the end of the reveal, I was just smiling and saying, Well, of course.

The book starts with Gen in jail because he's stolen the magus's seal ring. 90% of the book, you think he's just this great thief who got caught once. Then, in the last two chapters, you find out that Gen himself--the narrator whose story is told in first person point of view--arranged to botch the original theft of the ring so he could end up in jail and be the thief selected for the journey because he was working for the Queen of Eddis. Wow. The guy who is telling the story totally dupes the readers.


And one last thing: This book was, according to Amazon, intended for ages 10-14 or grades 6+, depending on the review. So I guess, technically, upper MG. It's written brilliantly--no punches held in style, voice, or plot. I'm 26 and I didn't figure out the ending. This makes me feel much better about maybe having my book be upper MG...and is one more book to make me realize how skewed an idea I had of MG previously.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

MG Titles

Some surprising titles that I'd not considered to be MG (but Amazon does):

Aretmis Fowl
Percy Jackson series
Harry Potter (1 through 7)
Ender's Game
Eldest series
The Giver
His Dark Materials trilogy
The Chronicles of Narnia
Septimus Heap books
Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank
City of Ember
Hatchet
A Wrinkle in Time
Holes
The Earthsea books
Stargirl


...um. Wow. I've read most of these books*. I used to emulate these books**. Clearly, I have had a skewed idea of MG. And I think you guys are right...there is a distinction between upper and lower MG. Heck, there's a distinction between Harry Potter 1 and Harry Potter 7. But in Amazon's 9-12 category, there are books as varied as Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss to Christopher Paolini and Louis Sachar.

Thing is, I did not consider any of these books to be MG (with the possible exception of Narnia and early HP). I just....didn't. A Wrinkle in Time? That was the epitome of YA to me...but it says, right there, for "ages 9-12." I thought the Earthsea books were adult. Stargirl is set in high school. Anne Frank's diary is about the Holocaust. I thought The Giver was way above MG.

True, there are some books on Amazon's 9-12 list that are labeled as YA if you click on the book for more details. (Eldest was the first I found.) And Percy Jackson is under the children's and the teen section.

So...um...all I've learned is that I need to do some more research, and that MG is definitely not what I thought it was before.




* And the ones I haven't were on my to be read pile. Except for Pullman's books cuz, yanno, Pullman sucks.
**Again, except for Pullman. See previous footnote.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

YA vs. MG

I've posted this question to my writer's group, but it's really bugging me, so I thought I'd bring it over here, too.

Several people who have read my query think that it sounds MG, not YA. Of the four people who read some sample chapters, one person thought it sounded MG, one person thought it sounded perfectly high school, and two people (my mom and my husband) told me to quit obsessing (my husband added he wanted a pie, so I kicked him).

I'm not really up on my MG reading. When I think MG, I think Lemony Snicket, Cornelia Funke, and The Spiderwick Chronicles...all of which are series that I never finished. MG tends to be a little too light for me, a little too much on the happy ending side (despite my Lemony Snicket connotations)...it's a little more fluff. Not that this is bad--sometimes I really just want a light, easy read, but on my book shelf, I tend to stack my MG novels with my other lighter fare, like my cheesy romances. (Please don't think I'm slamming your book, PJ! Actually, when I read your description of The Emerald Tablet, I thought it sounded more YA than MG...I'm really getting confused about the distinction!)

Most of my book shelf is YA, but, admittedly, the YA I tend to read include the classics (CS Lewis, TH White) or not-as-hardcore-as-some-fantasy books (like JK Rowling, Diana Wynne Jones, Robin McKinley).

The Amnesia Door is between 60 and 65k words and deals with some dark issues: ethics, morality, temptation, death, animal mutilation (it's really essential to the story, please don't think I'm psycho!), intended and implied human mutilation. It's not something I think of a 12 year old reading. Then again, the Lemony Snicket books were pretty dark too, and judging from the movie, Spiderwick got more serious as the series continued. On the other hand, there is no romance at all, there's some pretty typically MG school scenes (wish I fit in! wish I were popular!), and my characters tend to be a bit more believing and less sarcastical doubtful of everything.

So, my basic question is this: what do YOU think is the difference between MG or YA? What makes one over the other? Which do you think my novel should be classified as (know that you've not read it, just looking for a survey answer)? If you think my novel sounds more MG than YA, what do you think I should do about my query?

Getting Critiqued

My query is being critiqued over on Evil Editor's blog, and my pitch is getting a facelift on Editorial Anonymous's temporary pitch critique.

These are both great resources for anyone working on either of these two things...

Friday, August 1, 2008

Opinions Wanted!

So over to the right, I've got a little poll going. What's you opinion on Chapter Headings? I loved them in books like the Enchanted Forest chronicles by Patricia Wrede, but they're not in my favorite books, the Chronicles of Narnia.

Currently, I'm not using Chapter Headers...for the first time. Part of that is because when I started a chapter I had no freaking clue how the chapter would end...so I just slapped a number on the top of the page and wrote. I'm thinking of adding them in now, but thought I'd get some opinions first :)

First Lines

I think I've been having so much trouble with Chapter 1 because I didn't have a first sentence. So, for inspiration, I checked out the 100 top first sentences for novels (googling that brings up several sites), and once I got past stupid ol' "Call me Ishmael," there were some good ideas there. Looking at the structure helped, too. I found that, personally, I hate the long first sentences, but was attracted to the short, simple ones. Also, I liked the ones that created some sort of beautiful image or made a contrast. This site really discussed more of how to construct a first line, which helped, too.

And now that I've got a first line, I've got a better sense of direction for that opener...which means I might finally get out of the first chapter in my revisions! I've only written, you know, five different openings by this point!!

Accomplishments

Guess how much I wrote today?

One sentence.

But damn is it a good sentence.

Book Review: Mary E. Pearson's The Adoration of Jenna Fox

My Amazon books finally came! Squee!

I had a hard time picking which book I'd read first. In the end, I decided on The Adoration of Jenna Fox, in part because I was curious about that present tone PJ kept mentioning, and because there was a recent review over on Tabitha's site (which I've not read yet as I didn't want to ruin the book's ending till I finished).

Plot: Jenna Fox wakes up from a coma 18 months after a terrible car crash. She has no memory of the crash, and a lot has changed in those 18 comatose months: she now lives with her grandmother and mother in California while her father continues to work in Boston, her grandmother--once her closest friend--is cold and distant from her, and her memory has huge holes in it--she can quote the entire text of Walden* from memory, but has no memories at all of ever having a best friend. Throughout the story, she pieces together what exactly happened to her--body and soul. Spoilers ahead: highlight the blank space below for a bit more info:
The "twist" is not that much of a surprise, at least not for me: Jenna was actually so damaged in the car wreck that her bio-engineer father manufactured a new body for her--the only thing left of the "original" Jenna is 10% of her brain. I saw that coming a mile away. The real question of the story isn't really what happened to Jenna--it's more psychological than that. For example: if "Jenna" is 10% of a brain and 90% biological goo in fake skin, is she still human? Does she have a soul? What, ethically, should have been done to her body--let it die, or save it--and now that she's been "saved," what should be done with her?
Oh. And just to get this off my chest. I didn't really like the last chapter. I'm sorry. I just felt that she'd raised issues--such as how she'll never age, or how sex seems to be out of the question--and then threw together a happy ending without telling how she overcame those issues. She just says she spent 70 years with Ethan and never even mentions how weird it was for her to be 17 forever and he ages? It was too happy an ending for me; too black and white in an otherwise gray book.
As a reader, I adored the book. Here's how you can tell: I read it all yesterday. That's pretty rare for me--I tend to read 3-4 books at once, dropping one and picking up another. Not this time. I read the entire thing yesterday.

But, you know, I don't want this blog to be a book review site; it's a writing site. So let's look at the book from a writer's perspective.

1. Episodic Plot. Looking at the book structurally, the plot is rather episodic. One thing happens, then another. It basically goes step-by-step. With the exception of the more philosophical issues touched on in my spoilers, there isn't really a driving force that carries on throughout the entire book--there's not a mystery to solve, or clues to gather. It really is step 1, step 2, step 3.

That's not to say that's bad. In some books, well, it IS bad--that kind of writing can make a book boring. If this was a mystery, or a thriller, or even a romance, episodic plot would be the kiss of death. Just look at what it did to Nobody's Princess. But this book isn't really a genre book, and an episodic plot works. The book isn't really about what happens--although that is good to know--it's more about what you think about what happened.

2. Present tense writing. Hate it. I really do. A book reads "naturally" to me when it is in imperfect past tense.

But.

This book is so well written that I really didn't notice the present tense. Even now, if I had not known that it was present tense from PJ's recommendation, I don't think I'd have noticed.

But.

If I had noticed the present tense--if it had all been in the now with nothing from the past--that might have been a deal-breaker for me.

3. Beautiful craft. This is the most important aspect of the book. Mary Pearson did two dangerous things in writing: episodic plot and present tense. However, the book was so beautifully written, that these two things weren't really an issue for me. Visually, the book was beautiful--the "chapters" weren't so much chapters as new headers in front of new ideas or pieces of the plot. Occasionally, there were darker pages with a "chapter" that read more like a poem. "Chapter" length varied from a few pages to a few sentences. Furthermore, this was tight writing. You know how people say cut everything not needed? Yeah, she did that. Every. single. sentence. was essential to the book.

I don't know how to define it**. I can just say: this is a beautifully written book.

*May I just say: if what happened to Jenna ever happens to me, could someone please give me a better book to have memorized than Walden?!?
**OK, maybe I do know how to define it. You know how you read something that's so good that you kinda wanna cry because it's over, and you also kinda wanna cry because you know you'll never, ever be able to write something that good. It's a bit like that.