Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Laura: Looking to the Past

If you're reading this, you're probably a writer. Or know a writer. So maybe you can tell me: is there a writer out there who thrills to the sight of a blank page? Whose creative juices are goosed by a blinking cursor?

If so, I don’t want to know about it.

Like most writers (I hope), I need something to set my mind wandering down a path of “maybes” and “what ifs”. Often it’s people I know, places I go, conversations I overhear.

Take UNDER THE EGG, my first novel that comes out March 18. Theo's sidekick, Bodhi? My college roommate. Theo's grandfather? My favorite professor. Theo's crumbling townhouse? My eighty-five-year-old neighbor's house (which he recently sold for over a million. Oh, Brooklyn.).

But my favorite place to mine for ideas is history. Recent or prehistoric—I don’t care. Give me a well-researched biography, a juicy obituary, an old diary or letter. I can squeeze ideas out of my brain until they dribble out my ears, but a true story will always be richer, more inspiring, more impossible to believe.

Life is truly stranger than fiction.
UNDER THE EGG began in the pages of just such an incredible-but-true book: The Forger's Spell, the story of a man who forged Vermeers and sold them to the Nazis. On page 35, Edward Dolnick wrote: 

The easiest test of an old master—and the one test almost certain to be carried out—is to dab the surface with rubbing alcohol. In a genuinely old painting, the surface will be hard, and the alcohol will have no effect. If the painting is new, the alcohol will dissolve a bit of paint, and the tester’s cotton swab will come up smudged with color.

I had an idea.

That initial idea set me off on a Google spiral, where I stumbled upon more incredible stories: a painting by Titian, painted over by another artist and lost for over 400 years. A group of art scholars in World War II tasked with finding and protecting Europe’s greatest treasures. A portrait of Raphael’s mistress, where an x-ray uncovered a painted-out wedding ring.

But finding the true story behind the headlines requires more than just a Google search. And that's where the Theo and Bodhi sides of my brain came together. 

Theo is living a Great Depression lifestyle in modern-day Greenwich Village, a life where her computer access is limited to the library (where she’d rather check books out than log on). Her friend Bodhi is tech-savvy, happy to exploit high-end gadgets to track down the latest news and technology.

Like Bodhi, I rely heavily on the Internet. Google is my best friend and most-consulted expert (and sometimes annoying co-worker with too many “must-see” dog GIFs). But in the world of art history, the Internet has limited advantages. The real scholarship is found in painstakingly-researched books and articles, not in the media. While the instant access of the internet is great for the pajama-fond writer, it was important to also consult sources that had the weight of well-documented scholarship behind them.

The Internet can also create a real problem in mysteries. How do you build suspense when you can find any answer in 0.43 seconds? And who says the first answer is always the right answer? That’s where Theo’s tech aversion pays off. She shows us that sometimes you have to put down the gadgets and just quietly, seriously, really look. That goes for looking at art and also looking at your own writing, where you have to figure out how to turn, say, a cool idea sparked by an Internet search into a full-fledged plot with characters.

But that comes later. First you need an idea. So try starting in the past. Pick up old pictures at yard sales. Read out-of-print books. Take a walk through a cemetery and read the headstones. Ask yourself who these people were and what they want to tell us.

The stories are out there waiting for anyone -- and that includes any kid -- to find them and bring them back to life.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Lisa: On Quiet Novels

Hi, my name is Lisa and I love quiet novels.

I love writing them, and I also love reading them. Am I in a group of a select few when it comes to this? Hold on to this thought, I'll come back to it in a minute.

I've been thinking about quiet books after a writer told me she received a rejection letter that basically said, "I'm sorry, this is just too quiet."

So, what does quiet even mean when we're talking about books? Some people instantly think quiet = literary, but I don't think that's necessarily the case. I think it's more than that. And maybe it means different things to different people, which makes it's hard to slap a definition on there that will satisfy everyone. Here are some things it *might* mean:

Fairly ordinary.
No big hook.
Hard to summarize what the book is about in a short and succinct way.
Mostly about relationships.
Not a lot of tension to keep the reader flipping those pages.

Anything else you might add?

I feel like most of my published YA novels are quiet. Some have better hooks than others. But they are all definitely about relationships.

Let's take my upcoming YA novel, coming out in July, THE BRIDGE FROM ME TO YOU, as an example. It doesn't have a big hook. It is hard to summarize what the book is about in a short and succinct way. It is mostly about relationships. It takes place in Small Town, America, so in that sense, it is pretty ordinary. I'd like to think there is a little tension in those pages, but is there a ton, like a thriller would have? No way. Not even close.

It's a book about small town life, about what family means, about what friendship means, about helping someone else be the best version of themselves that they can be.

Yep, I know - a hard, hard sell. Thank goodness I have an agent and an editor who love quiet books too. Or, as I like to say, books with heart. And that's one of the important things, I think - your quiet book better have a whole ton of heart if it's going to have any chance of making a splash in the publishing world.

If I had tried to sell this book before it was written, I'm not sure I would have been able to do so. That's the thing about quiet books -- they are often the kind that don't sound like any great thing, so it's in the execution. It's in the characters and how people feel about them as they read. It's in the setting and atmosphere, which I would argue are hugely important in quiet books. It's in the details - the little things that make the reader go "ooooh."

One of the most popular books of 2013 was ELEANOR AND PARK. From Goodreads, the one sentence description: "Set over the course of one school year in 1986, ELEANOR AND PARK is the story of two star-crossed misfits – smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try."

Some have argued that this quiet novel found legs because of John Green's endorsement, and that may be true, but as of this writing (the end of January, because I'm organized like that), it's still on the NYT bestseller list long after that endorsement. (Edited to add: Yes, it did just win a Printz honor, but I checked the NYT list before that happened). I don't think staying power like that happens unless a book is loved and talked about and talked about some more. What I've heard over and over again about this book is that readers fall in love with both of the characters of Eleanor and Park. So yeah, characters in quiet books are really important.

Okay, so who else writes quiet books? I would argue Sarah Dessen's YA novels are pretty quiet. I found THIS INTERVIEW she did with "The Horn Book" a few years back, and I think it's interesting what she says here about her books:

"SD: There are certain things about the teenage experience in our culture that are always going to be there: the issues you have with your parents; the boy you have a crush on who doesn’t know your name; the friend who isn’t nice to you, but for some reason you’re friends with her anyway. But then there’s room within those experiences to make each character unique."

All of the things she talks about are quite ordinary for teenagers. And yet, what makes each Sarah Dessen story unique is the character, her situation, the people in her life, and how the main character deals with the change.

Again, it's in the execution.


Another quiet novel that's done very well is THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE by Jandy Nelson. It didn't hit the NYT bestseller list (I don't think?) or win any major awards, but it has over 25,000 ratings on goodreads, which is a lot! And it made its way onto more than ten state reading lists. That is no small feat. It's a book about grief, and we know there are a lot of books about grief. But what you hear again and again about this book is the gorgeous writing. AND the publisher did some amazing things with the poems the main character writes throughout the novel. It is a beautiful book, in many, many ways, and that is how this book is unique and stands out from so many.

And maybe that is the take away here. Quiet books ARE published, but the ones that do really, really well have something special. Something unique. Something you don't see everyday. ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS by Stephanie Perkins takes place in Paris. PLEASE IGNORE VERA DIETZ by A.S. King (another book about grief) is incredibly smart and tells the story from multiple points of view, including the pagoda that plays a small role in the book. IF I STAY by Gayle Forman uses flashbacks in a very unique and extremely effective way.

Clearly, people will read quiet books, and we shouldn't believe otherwise. My quiet novel coming out in July is unique in that it is written from two points of view - Lauren's and Colby's. Lauren's story is told in verse, Colby's story is told in prose. Somewhat ordinary, but also, somewhat unique.

What about you? Do you like quiet novels? Do you think they're a hard sell? Would love to hear your thoughts on this!

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Dianne: The Unbridled Enthusiasm of MG Readers

In April of 2014, I look forward to making my debut as a middle grade author. As much as I love being a YA author, there’s something special about MG readers. I should know. I’ve been teaching fifth graders to love reading for over twenty years.

YA readers also love their books, of course, and invest themselves in the character relationships (especially the romances), but MG readers are different. They get sucked into the world of the book. They want to live the adventure. They want the book to be real.

The best review I’ve ever received came from one of my own students while I was reading aloud to the class from an early manuscript of The Eighth Day. He said:

“I could totally play this at recess.”

Middle grade readers still engage in imaginative play. They immerse themselves in fantasy worlds, and yes, sometimes they do act out their adventures at recess.

When my students heard the premise of my book – a secret day hidden between Wednesday and Thursday – they begged me to read it to them. At first, I felt a little embarrassed about using my manuscript as a class read-aloud. Shouldn’t the time be given to a more deserving author? Gordon Korman? Jerry Spinelli? And I’ll admit it. The stage fright of reading my own book in the classroom rivaled that of reading my book on stage at a steampunk ball.

But pretty soon, I was addicted to what amounted to crack for authors:  watching a fifth grade audience totally buy into my world-building. The secret day premise was a hit. The world I invented became their shared world. “See you on Grunsday!” my students called to each other as they left school on Wednesdays. Some of them penciled an extra day into their weekly agendas.

As for the temporary tattoos I ordered as swag and handed out to the class – I didn’t anticipate how much of a success they’d be! Students applied them on the spot and ran around the room, flashing their tattoos at each other and testing to see if they’d developed any special talents. Two weeks later, when one boy proudly showed me that he still had his tattoo, I was flattered and grossed out. (Because, you know, soap and water takes them off.)

There are many things about YA that I’ve missed while working on this book and the sequels – like the fun of writing a romance. But when it comes to sheer jumping-up-and-down, bubbling-over-enthusiasm from the actual target audience, I don’t think you can beat middle grade!

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Age Of Wonder

I love writing for a middle grade audience.
There are no hard and fast rules, but generally speaking a middle grade audience falls between the ages of 8-12. Personally, I call this the age of wonder.
Readers in these ages have one foot in the magical world of childhood, and the other in the “real world” of growing up. Generally speaking, middle grade readers might:
·      Check under their bed for monsters
·      Have a pair of lucky underpants
·      Wonder if their parents are secretly superheroes
·      Suspect they are likely the world’s best (fill in the blank)
·      Believe they can soar into the sky, if only they try hard enough 
To me, this is fertile soil for storytellers. It’s thrilling to see the excitement in a young reader’s eyes as they describe to you something they find amazing. And the wonderful thing is, they find almost everything amazing. It might be a stick they found in a gutter or a string they discovered in their belly button. It might be a fact they read in a book, or a character in a movie. So many things in the world are new to them, and there is unabashed excitement and wonder in all of it.
At this age, readers are grappling with two things: the world around them, and their place in that world. And the best part? They’re teachable. A good story can point them in the right direction. A good story can help them uncover a vital truth. They can experience joy and despair, victory and defeat, pain and happiness, all vicariously through a fearless protagonist. They can learn, without having to make the mistakes themselves.
Some feel that writing for middle grade readers means you must use small words or make it “simple” for the reader. This is not the case. You can deal with many, topics—even very difficult ones—and still have the book suitable for middle grade readers. The thing to keep in mind is you must be true to the age. Middle grade readers don’t care about love triangles. They don’t care about budgets or bosses. They do care about friendship. And bullies. Justice and injustice. Fear and weakness and death. What it means to be brave. All of these topics can be addressed in a middle grade book, as long as you view them through the lens of the reader.
I tried to capture a young reader’s dream in my book Almost Super. It’s the story of two boys born into a superhero family. They are destined for great things once they get their super powers. But  things don’t go quite as planned. The brothers must discover who their true friends are, and ultimately what it means to be super.
Wonder, excitement, adventure. I hope my story offers all of these for readers who secretly know that at any minute, the same thing is bound to happen to them. 

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

2013!


The 2013 news roundup- congrats to all on a great year for the nest!

DR. BIRD'S ADVICE FOR SAD POETS by Evan Roskos is a Morris Award Finalist 2014, a Kirkus Best Teen Book of 2013, on the TAYSHAS 2014 list, a CYBILS Finalist, and received a starred Kirkus review.

PICKLE by Kim Baker is on the 2014-2015 Texas Bluebonnet Award master list, won a Crystal Kite from the SCBWI, and a 2013 Children's Choice Book awards finalist.

THE WATER CASTLE by Megan Frazer Blakemore is a Kirkus Best Children's Book 2013, on the NYPL Books for Reading and Sharing List 2013 and one of Fuse 8's 100 Magnificent Children's Books of 2013.

MONSTROUS BEAUTY by Elizabeth Fama is on the YALSA BFYA 2013 list, and an Odyssey Award Honor book.

LOVELY, DARK AND DEEP by Amy McNamara won the 2013 IRA Children's and YA Book Award for YA fiction.

PLUNKED by Michael Northrop was the NPR Backseat Bookclub pick for November 2013, was named one of the Best Children's Books of the Year by the Bank Street College of Education, is a 2013-14 Iowa Children's Choice Award nominee and a 2014-15 Young Hoosiers Book Award nominee.

A GIRL CALLED PROBLEM by Katie Quirk is on NYPL Books for Reading and Sharing List 2013 and is a Fuse 8's 100 Magnificent Children's Books of 2013.

Both THE WATER CASTLE and A GIRL CALLED PROBLEM were reviewed in the New York Times here and here, and both received starred Kirkus reviews.

ENTANGLED by Amy Rose Capetta was a BEA Buzz Book 2013 and received a starred PW.

NANTUCKET BLUE by Leila Howland was also reviewed in the New York Times here and received a PW Starred review.

BLACKOUT by Robison Wells and TIDES by Betsy Cornwell also got PW stars, and Kelly Barson's 45 POUNDS starred reviews from VOYA and LMC.

SKY JUMPERS by Peggy Eddleman is on NYPL Books for Reading and Sharing List 2013 and on the on the 2013 Indies Next list.

Adding to the many state lists it is already on, ROT AND RUIN by Jonathan Maberry is a Children's Book Review Best Kids Series Books of 2013, the winner of the 2013 Missouri Gateway Readers Award and the 2013 Teen Nutmeg Book Award.

FLESH & BONE by Jonathan Maberry won the YA Bram Stoker Award 2013.

DUST AND DECAY by Jonathan Maberry is the winner of the Westchester Fiction Award 2013.

The EXTINCTION MACHINE by Jonathan Maberry got a starred Booklist review.

THE DISENCHANTMENTS by Nina LaCour is on the BFYA 2013 list, and a Northern California Independent Booksellers Book of the Year Award Winner.

TRAPPED by Michael Northrop is a YALSA Popular Paperback for Young Adults 2013.

 
 
AND, this neglected blog will soon be filled with posts again. Marion Jensen is up next, talking about his MG debut, ALMOST SUPER (Harper, February). Looking forward to making more news in 2014!

Sara

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Dianne: When Research Turns Up Nothing – And It’s a Good Thing

Caerleon, Wales -- a Roman amphitheater
It’s tough when you travel to another continent for research and don’t get what you want.

That’s what I thought when my trip to the U.K. this summer didn’t give me the results I expected. My husband had hired a private tour guide to drive me around southern Wales, visiting places related to King Arthur so I could gather information for my MG fantasy series, THE EIGHTH DAY.

The tour guide contacted me by email beforehand, asking specifically what Arthurian sites I wanted to see, but I had none in mind. So I replied that I was looking for inspiration. This research would be applied to a future book in the series, and I was open to ideas.

Ogmore-by-the-Sea, Wales -- a 12th century castle
I thought he was going to take me to 5th century ruins. Instead, he took me to sites that were obviously dated long before or after Arthur’s time – an excavated 1st century Roman fort and amphitheater and the ruins of a 12th century Norman castle. When I asked the guide what connections these had with Arthur, his answers were vague. Legend said that Arthur moved into the fort after the Romans were gone. Legend said that Arthur fought a battle on this plain before Normans built the castle.

But when the guide saw that I was serious enough to hear the truth, he leveled with me. “There are hundreds of places from Scotland to southern England and even into Normandy, France that claim an association with Arthur. Not a single one can be proven. There’s more negative proof than anything else.” He referred me to a book he’d recently read, The Camelot Inquisition by John F. Wake, which I promptly downloaded on my Kindle.

Sadly, I came to the same conclusion as my guide. There’s no credible evidence for a historical King Arthur. In fact there’s a lot of evidence that weighs against him. Most notably: no historians from his time period mention him at all.

Disappointment was followed rather quickly by a feeling of freedom. If Arthur wasn’t real, then I was free to use Arthurian legends however I wanted. I had already been questioned by a copy-editor about the historical accuracy of using the name Arthur Pendragon when Pendragon was associated only with his father Uther until sometime in the 17th century. That caused me some worry … but if there was no historical Arthur, then the historical accuracy of his name isn’t really in question, is it?

If the tour guide had told me in advance he was taking me to the ruins of a Roman amphitheater with only the shakiest connection to Arthurian legend, I might have nixed the trip and gone elsewhere. And that would have been a shame. Because what I thought was nothing was actually full of the potential of everything – including the placement of Arthur’s court in a centuries-old Roman fortress with an amphitheater for his Knights to practice in – if that’s how I choose to write the story.

I told my guide I wanted inspiration, and he delivered what I asked for – just not in the way I expected.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Frances: The Origins of THE MISADVENTURES OF THE MAGICIAN'S DOG




Last spring, when my editor at Holiday House asked me how I came to write The Misadventures of the Magician’s Dog, I thought I knew how to answer.  The seed of the novel dates back more than a decade, to when a dear friend’s daughter adopted a dog named Anatole.  He in no way lived up to his dignified name:  he was a scruffy mutt who liked to jump the fence and frequently peed on the furniture.  Still, he adored my friend’s daughter—which became very important when she was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes at the age of five.  At a moment when her life was falling apart, he was a best friend who never left her side.  Perhaps for that reason, when she asked me where Anatole lived before he came to her, I explained that he used to belong to a magician and that he could talk and do magic.  After all, isn’t there something magic about a dog who can make a child feel that loved?    

For years after that, I thought about writing a novel about a dog who used to belong to a magician.  But I couldn’t quite figure out the rest of the novel—who would adopt the dog and what would happen next.  And then our country went to war, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the kids of deployed service people:  it seemed to me that these children were carrying an enormous burden, one that they hadn’t chosen and that my own children and their friends knew nothing about.  So I wrote the story of Peter Lubinsky, the son of a deployed air force pilot who adopts a dog that used to belong to a magician.  The dog offers to teach Peter magic so that he can bring his father home—but only if Peter first helps the dog rescue his former master, who has accidentally turned himself into a rock.

This is what I told my editor when she asked about the origins of my book.  However, in reflecting back, I think my answer only skims the surface of why I wrote this particular story—just like most answers to the question of where stories come from only skim the surface.  We write the books we write because of who we are in our deepest cores, because of the questions that drive us, the desires we haven’t resolved.  These are hard issues to talk about—at least for me!—but I think there’s value in understanding a story’s unconscious undercurrents. So I thought I’d use this blog post to try to examine some of the deeper reasons I wrote the novel I wrote.  

In my case, one of my obsessions is the complex nature of love, with all of the push and pull of emotion that accompanies it.  Love isn’t black and white:  it’s full of ambivalence, one moment a source of happiness and well-being; the next, of frustration, anger, hurt.  This is true, I think, regardless of age—but for children in particular, this sort of ambivalence can be very difficult to deal with.  Children whose parents are deployed have more reasons than most to struggle with conflicting emotions.  On one hand, they may adore and even idolize their parents.  On the other, they may also feel fear, betrayal, and anger too at their parents for being gone.  That’s a lot for any child to carry.  Peter’s father is in a wonderful and loving man, and yet he’s also left his children and put himself at risk.  All Peter wants is for his father to come home—but his father would have to be a different person in order to return.  

I’m also obsessed with how anger affects people.  When the dog in my book teaches Peter how to do magic, he tells Peter that power is channeled through strong negative emotions, like anger—and the more magic Peter does, the more angry (and evil!) he’ll become.   When a friend read the first few chapters of an early draft, he wondered if magic done through anger might be too dark for a middle grade novel.  But every instinct in me recoiled from changing this particular aspect of the story.  As every parent can attest, anger is a powerful—and often scary—emotion for kids.  I wanted to write about how anger that isn’t acknowledged can fester, changing everything about how one sees the world. Yet I didn’t want to say anger is “bad.”  In the course of my story, Peter struggles to acknowledge and make peace the anger he feels, to understand that he can be angry with his father and still love him deeply.  This, to me, is the emotional heart of my story, the part of it that matters.

Of course, in writing about Peter’s attempts to reconcile his conflicting emotions about his father, I was really writing about my own struggles to understand love, anger, and the places where those two meet.  I didn’t know this when I wrote my initial draft, but I came to understand it as I revised.  And I think that this understanding helped me to make the choices I needed to make as a writer.
 
So here’s my advice for writers who are beginning the process of trying to tell their stories.  Write something that excites you:  whatever sort of story it is, just make sure it will keep you glued to your laptop, pouring the pages out.  Have fun, and let your imagination run wild.  But when you revise, go back and find the emotions that are driving your story—the undercurrents that caused you to write this book and no other.  Once you understand your story’s heart, polish it.  Refine it.  Make it true.  Your story’s emotional core may not take up much space in terms of the words in your book, which could be about dinosaurs and talking mice and crazy carnivals (mine is).  But make sure that the words, no matter how few, are right. 

And then send your story out into the world, knowing that it carries with it a little bit of your soul.