Friday, August 8, 2014

Kim: Donna Tartt is My Imaginary Friend

Or, How I Get Unstuck During Revision

When I’m revising a manuscript, I carry a book with me at all times. It bangs around in my bag, its corners wearing soft. It has oily fingerprints from wasabi peas. Friends do not ask to borrow it. I panic when it goes missing. Rumpled and stained, it’s like a beloved teddy bear. 
If you’re inclined to slice a teddy bear down its middle, rip out its stuffing and weigh it. Burrow under its button eyes with a seam ripper and examine the stitch-holes beneath. Measure the diameter of its ears and paws and marvel over its symmetry. 

I abuse these books in the name of revision. They are my touchstone texts, the books I return to when I need a master storyteller to tell me what to do.

In edu-speak, “touchstone texts” are books teachers use for lessons on writing craft (disclaimer: I know nothing, Jon Snow, about being a professional educator). My practice is probably closer to what teachers call using “mentor texts”, where one student uses one book to further their own writing. I like this term very much, because it allows me to fantasize that these authors are my actual mentors (yes, Lev Grossman, I fantasize about you). Even better, that my favorite authors have their own mentors. Imagine the pairings! Dickens traversing death and time to cast his spectral gaze over Donna Tartt’s sharp (I imagine it is sharp) shoulder. His bushy eyebrows rise in delight: of this, I’m sure.

My touchstone texts don’t have to be my favorite books (though they often are). They just have to do one thing extremely well. With the perspective of time, I can generally tell where my manuscript falls short, and where I need to turn.

When my lexicon feels tapped, I pick up Yōko Agawa’s Revenge, which inspires me to keep searching for the fewest, most precise words. When I need to ground the reader with a salient detail, Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides reminds me of the power of the ordinary (“a hot-water bottle the texture of inflamed skin, a midnight-blue jar of Vicks Vapo-rub fingerprinted inside”). If a chapter feels pedestrian, I re-read everything Karen Russell, whose stories about presidential horses and silkworm factory girls challenge me with their ingenuity. If my characters feel loosely drawn, I open Tartt’s The Goldfinch on my Kindle and do a keyword search for every mention of Xandra-with-an-X. If I start to worry that my protagonist is unlikable, I read a few pages of Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, then slap my own hand.

Touchstone texts aren’t books that inspire my novels’ concepts. The Talented Mr. Ripley is the inspiration for my third novel. But I won’t let myself near it while I’m writing. I’ve already got a version in my head, filtered into the elements that fascinate me. Besides, there’s the risk of too much Highsmith making its way onto my page. Or that I’ll judge my work against Highsmith’s, and become paralyzed.

Along these lines, I have some hard/fast rules for my touchstone texts:
  1. Touchstone texts have no business near first drafts. For all the reasons mentioned above.
  2. If you drift into the voice of the touchstone text author, banish the book from your cache.
  3. Mix. It. Up. There’s something to be learned from every great book. Don’t be afraid to study a writer whose style diverges from your own. Lately, I’m learning the rewards of a slow-rising character arc from Amanda Coplin’s The Orchardist.
Revising? Jonesing for a touchstone? I offer the following suggestions:

For Leads: The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier; Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs; Thank you for Smoking by Christopher Buckley; The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

For Endings: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides; The Constant Gardner by John leCarré; Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay (including the last chapter, published 20 years post-release); Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

For Voice: The Woman Upstairs by Clare Messud; Dark Places by Gillian Flynn (for Libby Day); Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer; The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

For Tone: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote; The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz; The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides; The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

For Crafting a Well-Constructed Narrative: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt; Bleak House by Dickens; Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier; The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
For Ingenuity: Antigonick by Ann Carson, Sophocles, and Bianco Stone; We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler; Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell; I Want to Show You More by Jamie Quatro

For Elegant Prose: Speedboat by Renata Adler; Cathedral by Raymond Carver; Atonement by Ian McEwan; Revenge by Yōko Ogawa

Yes, that’s a lipliner holding open Tartt’s Secret History. I’m not writing with it, though that would be glamorous. And messy. 

Monday, June 30, 2014

Dianne: Writing a Series -- What I Didn’t Know

Ever since the first book in my middle grade series released in April, people have been asking me if I’m excited about writing the next two books. When I tell them both books are already written, were in fact written before the first one even came out, they’re surprised. So am I.

The third book hasn’t undergone editorial revisions yet, but it’s due for completion this fall. The offer for the 3-book deal occurred in October of 2012, and by the time the second anniversary of that happy event comes around, the bulk of the writing for all three books will be completed.

I had no idea it would happen that fast.

Right after the contract was signed, there was the usual wait for an editorial letter. At the time, it seemed like the pace would be no different from my previous two book deals – that is, lots of waiting with periodic bouts of frantic activity. It wasn’t until I completed the editorial revisions for Book 1 and looked ahead to the submission deadline for Book 2 that it dawned on me how fast things were happening.

In September of 2013, I found myself working on all three books at once. I had first pass pages of The Eighth Day for proof-reading, my editorial letter for The Inquisitor’s Mark, and I was about a third of the way into writing the first draft of (the not-yet-officially-titled) Book 3 – all while working a full-time job as a teacher.

I felt like this:

"Jane! Get me off this crazy thing!"
It turned out I could not work on all three books at once. I kept getting confused about what Jax, my main character, knew and when he knew it.  So I concentrated first on the proof-reading of Book 1, then the revisions for Book 2. Only when those tasks were finished did I open my first draft of Book 3 again …

… and said, “Oh my God. This is a horrible mess.” Then I started over from scratch …

Writing Book 3 was an uphill battle. Like a magpie, I kept getting distracted by shiny new things: Eighth Day ARCs, early reviews, a cover for The Inquisitor’s Mark, back cover copy for the paperback version of The Eighth Day … (Did you know that was established before the hardback even released? Me neither!) Eventually I produced something I was proud to present to my editor, and right now I’m anxiously awaiting her guidance in transforming it into an even better story.

But do you know what the biggest surprise about writing a series has been? It never occurred to me that people would want to talk to me about the newly released first book – and meanwhile I know everything that happens in the next two.

Me: “You think that was bad, wait until Jax has to … oh, I can’t tell you. But you’re really going to love … no, wait, I shouldn’t say. But what did you think about the part where … um, has that happened yet?”

I’m a walking, talking spoiler. Beware.


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