Thursday, January 29, 2009

News!

THE BROTHERS TORRES selected as an ALA 2009 Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults! Congratulations, Coert!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Allison: Rock the Mic: Giving a Poetry Reading They Will Remember

They're everywhere coffee houses and cafes. Bookstores and libraries. Museums and art galleries. Colleges and universities. Chances are where ever you live, you are within a stones throw or at the very most, driving distance from a reading. Perhaps the spotlight is on you this time around. Here are some tips to make your event exciting and memorable.
CONTENT: Though it's not necessary to read from published work, it is crucial that you read from polished work. Don’t rely on what you’ve made up on the fly. Nothing is worse than a poet who reads a string of barely coherent poems under the guise of them being “works in progress”. Respect your audience; don’t play them as guinea pigs.
HOOK: Don’t think tricks or gimmicks, it’s not shtick. Open with a work that gives your audience a sense of what to expect. If your work is generally funny, start with a humorous piece so the audience will know that’s your thing and it’s all right to laugh. The same goes for more somber pieces. However, it never hurts to have a surprise or two in your line up, just to keep your audience on their toes.
SPACE: What’s the mood of your audience? Edgy? Stately? Emotional? Sentimental? Of course, no audience has a totally united personality, but you should be able to get a reading on what will work and what wont. This doesn’t mean coming out of yourself most people can detect a phony. That being said: think twice about stapling your heart to your sleeve and consider whether profuse profanity will turn off the room.
FLOW: After you have selected some strong pieces to read, practice. Read in front of a mirror or better yet into a recording device. Make sure that you look and sound comfortable. Make sure you know your work fluently.
TIME: If you are reading solo remember to plan for forty-five to sixty minutes of performance. If that sounds like a lot, you are right. It is. Keep in mind this does not mean the entire time will be eaten up with pure text. Hopefully, you will let your audience into your creative process or the story behind lines. I love when an artist goes off script and shares something really personal about his or her life or work.
CLOSURE: Make sure you have one. Don’t just run out or let the organizer of the reading give you the hook. Pay attention to your final line or image. End with a bang (or, if you chose, a whimper). This is your last chance to solidify your impression on the audience. Make sure you linger in their minds.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Brian Y: High Five

Since I became a YA writer about eight years ago a lot of YA novels have influenced me. I didn’t know I was a YA writer, by the way. I didn’t even know what YA was. You could have told me it stood for Yahoos Anonymous and I would have believed you.
Actually, my first published YA novel, MY ROAD TRIP TO THE PRETTY GIRL CAPITAL OF THE WORLD, was written as an adult novel. Then a friend said, “I think this might be a YA novel.” I might have said, “A Yahoos Anonymous novel?” but instead I said, “What’s a YA novel?” She told me and I said I didn’t think so because I was ignorant and reluctant to have my book placed with books for teenagers. I thought teen fiction was less than adult fiction back then.

“I think so,” she said and told me I was being an idiot, which I was.

So in order to be less of an idiot, or to convince her that I was anyway, I read some YA novels. Wow. I read some more. You know what I discovered. Anyone who reads YA fiction knows. Some of the most innovative, powerful, sad, funny, wondrous fiction around is YA fiction.

So now I’m a YA writer and proud of it and here are just a few, a very few, novels that I’ve loved.

Elsewhere by Margaret Zevin—what a novel. I like novels that can make me laugh and make me cry (well they would make me cry if I was the kind of guy who cried over books and stuff like that which I AM NOT but if I was this book would). It’s about a girl who gets hit by a car and dies. That’s the beginning. Then she is taken on a ship to a brilliantly imagined afterworld and meets lots of people, including her grandmother and a famous musician who committed suicide, and comes to terms with her own death. And though that doesn’t sound funny there are many, many laugh-out-loud moments in this novel.

Feed by M.T. Anderson (I love the Octavian novels but this one is still my favorite Anderson book). This novel has the kind of broad scope of Farenheight 451. Besides being a good story, it’s full of social criticism and is a scathing indictment of our rampant consumerism. It’s scary and funny and really, really smart.

Repossessed by A.M. Jenkins. This novel also begins with death. (What is wrong with me?) This demon who prefers to be called a fallen angel is on the lam from hell. He takes over this boy right at the moment he dies because he wants to experience life, particularly sex. The voice in this novel is perfect. The novel explores issues of faith in an interesting and hilarious way.

Speak by Laurie Anderson. A novel about a girl who is traumatized and her struggle to overcome the terrible thing that has happened to her. It is subtle and powerful and impossible to put down.

There are so many great YA novels. What to put for number five? The Bartemous Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud—funny and who isn’t charmed by a witty demon? Godless by Pete Hautman? You will never look at water towers the same after reading this novel. David Almond’s Skellig? The list could go on and on. But I’ll leave it there. So many good novels to read and so little time, but that’s the kind of problem, and in my experience there aren’t a lot of problems like this, you want to have.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Brian Meehl: RESEARCH (AKA, MUSE LITE)


To All Writers Who Have Yet To Find Their Muse:

Do not despair, you have research! To make an academic, homework-sounding, drudge of a word be as sexy as it can be, let us rename research, Muse Lite.

How can research be museish, inspirational? Well, to throw down another metaphor, if storytelling is a tango between the imagined and information, then imagination’s partner can be very sexy indeed.

A quick example. Do you know about the Spear of Destiny? The Spear of Destiny is the spear supposedly wielded by the Roman centurion who used it to pierce Christ’s side on the cross. Legend has it that whoever holds the Spear can attain world domination. Hitler stole the alleged Spear out of a museum in Vienna when he invaded Austria. He had it in his bunker at the end of the war, and it is believed that General Eisenhower removed it to a subbasement in the Pentagon. Legend also says that when the Spear of Destiny returns to the Holy Land the end of the world will begin.

In my first novel, this information became inspiration for the Plunger of Destiny (as in toilet), and the Plunger’s return to a small town in Kansas, which signaled the beginning of the town’s apocalyptic destruction.

This arcane bit of information about the Spear of Destiny is what we might consider innate research: stuff we pick up somewhere along the way that’s rattling around in our mental drawer just waiting to be put to use, if not in a book then at least in a bar to impress a date.

Which brings me to the notion that research comes in various modes:
Innate
Passive
Active

Innate research you already know (literally): your mental dust bunnies just waiting to be swept off their idle feet and put to good use. This innate knowledge can range from the informational to the emotional.

Passive research is the great bustling present/future world of info and experience that streams your way by accident, coincidence, serendipity, synchronicity, etc. A human being (noun) being (verb) is a walking lint brush passing over the sweater of life.
An example: I’m researching in a small county museum; I make a monetary contribution to the gray-haired curator who escorted me through the rooms; she accepts it and exclaims: “Well bless your heart and half your gizzard.” Bingo, a passive research bonanza.
Eavesdropping: passive research. Dreams: passive research (sometimes muse-dark) Getting dumped by the love of your life: passive research.

Active research is information/experience that you seek out. I know a writer who calls it Lewis & Clarking (which also could define plowing through to the end of a draft). My most recent example of mega-active research was getting in a camper and doing a back roads trek following the Oregon Trail from Independence, MO to Portland, OR. I was attempting to replicate a runaway boy’s quest in search of his father.

Which brings me to one of my pet peeves about a “rule” of writing. “Write what you know.” In a word, bullshit. Yeah-yeah, there’s some truth to writing about what you know emotionally, but if Write What You Know was a worthy commandment, the act and art of research would be as valuable to a writer as his/her appendix.

I prefer, Write About What You Don’t Know Yet. It’s why we do research. Write about what fascinates you, fires your curiosity, what makes you want to know more. Write about whatever will sustain you through hours of research and hundreds of hours drafting and redrafting.

Because of the internet we live in the Golden Age of Research. If you want to visit a toilet museum in India, you can. If you need skateboard slang, you’ll find it on the net. “Let your fingers do the walking” has never been truer.

That said, a major caveat. When doing your research, don’t get snared by the internet. Here’s my list of old-fashioned research to-dos:

1. Step away from your desk; get your boots on the ground you’re writing about; go venturing with your muse. Interview people, visit neighborhoods, poke around museums. Don’t just see the scene, smell it.

2. My first language is English...so is my second. Think of your native tongue as a language you’re still learning. As you listen, eavesdrop, read, keep a notebook of words/phrases that give you better descriptors than you have in your vocabulary. Here’s a few I’ve collected recently: wheedled, doofy, scriptoria.

3. Read your genre. Whatever genre you write, read-research as much of it as you can. Know how other authors are succeeding or screwing up.

4. I read dead people. If you’re doing period writing, read travel diaries/books from the time and place. They’re filled with detailed descriptions and period language. Dead men do tell tales.

5. Dictionaries are fiction-functionaries. Besides a dictionary and thesaurus, no writer’s pod is complete without a visual dictionary, a reverse dictionary, and a slang dictionary. If you’re not aware of these linguistic treasures do some research.

6. Disappearing down the research hole. It can happen. If you’re a research-aholic, like me, at some point you need to say, “Okay, it’s time I started writing about all this cool stuff I just learned! And yes, if you’re oozing information, first drafts can read like research documents. Don’t despair, the Good Lord invented rewriting to cure the recovering researcher. Always remember, research is pre-search.

Perhaps the greatest answer to “Write what you know,” is William Goldman’s famous line, “Nobody knows anything.” It’s a fun little paradox that can only be solved by knowing something you didn’t previously know.

Your job as a writer-researcher-writer is to go forth, find something out, and report back to us.

So be off, indulge yourself in a tango with Muse Lite.

Dancing on,

Brian Meehl

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Lisa: Interview with Simon Pulse Editor Michael del Rosario

1. Authors are always curious about the acquisitions process. Of course we understand it varies from house to house, but could you share with us how the process works at Simon Pulse?

It’s not that exciting really. When a manuscript comes in from an agent to me that I like, I present it to my team who then takes a chance to read it and weigh in. If everyone agrees to move forward, we then have to get the marketing and sales people aboard, so we present the book to them and have them read a bit. And if they’re all aboard, we contact the agent and start negotiations. Boring huh? At least I left out the extremely boring part about paperwork and signatures…..

2. In this extremely competitive market for young adult novels, how much of a say does Marketing have in the acquisitions process? Do they ever put the skids on a book that an editor was really hoping to acquire?

Well as I said in my previous answer, our Marketing team always gets a chance to weigh in on acquisitions. The only situation I could see our marketing team wanting to put the skids on an acquisition would be in a case where they couldn’t actually market the property to its full potential. But being that our editorial team is very clear as to the style and feel of our line of books and as to what our marketing team can and cannot do, I couldn’t see a manuscript of that nature getting far enough in the acquisitions process to even give the Marketing team a chance to weigh in as such. The editorial and marketing teams would have to have complete different interests, which is something I’ve luckily never had to worry about yet.

3. Pulse seems to acquire quite a few series, and we thought it'd be interesting to hear about that. Why so many series lately? And do you think there are certain things about a book's concept that lends itself well to a series?

Actually, Pulse does not acquire as many series as they used to (at least ongoing series that is). A couple of years ago almost every teen property was an ongoing series. And when I started at Pulse the popularity in ongoing series had quieted down and the popularity of trilogies or limited series cropped up. I would compare this change in appeal to that of television. Viewers love an ongoing television show as long as the story stays true to its origins. Once a show begins to regurgitate old stories, or seems to not know where to go next, viewers drop. Why so many series lately? Simple: it’s almost a guaranteed sale if the first book was a success. Look at how many movies end up with sequels. As to what makes a book concept lend itself well to a series, you need a distinct world, and characters you can fall in love with. Your hook needs to be somewhat open-ended. And of course your ending needs to suggest a sequel.

4. A few years ago, YA was hot and the place to be. Today, there are more and more YA books on the shelves. Bookstores are having to expand their YA section. Any thoughts on what this mean for writers of YA? For editors of YA?

For writers, I’d say write your heart out. Write the best you can and write a story you desperately want to write. Because with all the competition out there, writing according to what’s popular or catering to too many people will only make you part of the crowd. Stand out. For editors of YA I think it’s harder on us, because we have the hard task of choosing what to publish. And with so much to choose from nowadays, and with tighter budgets, some amazing work may not get the chance it deserves. We unfortunately are the bearers of that burden.

5. Finally, could you share with our readers what draws you to a manuscript? Can you give us some examples of books you have edited, out now or coming out soon, and what specifically you liked about them when you read them for the first time?

I think this is my favorite question! Not in any particular order, the things that draw me to a manuscript would be: Humor, originality, an authentic voice, quirk, passion, flow, edge, and of course good writing. A manuscript does not need to have all these things, but these are some of the thing that grab my attention.

Two examples of books I edited that either have come out or will be coming out soon would be: Far from You, by Lisa Schroeder (out now!), and Raven, by Allison van Diepen (on sale 2/10/09). With Lisa’s book, it was her second with me so editorially things went smoothly, but what I loved particularly about this novel that was different from her first was the visceral reaction I received from reading about her characters being trapped in a blizzard. I literally had to step out of my office on more than one occasion to fight my own feelings of claustrophobia. The tension was just palpable. In Allison’s case, I had never worked with her editorially before, although she had published two books with Pulse previously. This was also her first venture into writing paranormal fiction, so what fascinated me was her unique twist to a popular genre. Everyone out there was writing a vampire book, and Allison decided to write about immortals. That mixed with her frenetic urban style of fiction just blew me away. Reading about these immortals, their powers, and the lives they lived was just so cool. I couldn’t put the book down.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Erin: Five Books that Made this (dare I say) Writer

I still have trouble calling myself a “writer”. When I was growing up, obsessed with books, I believed authors were other-worldly beings… not quite of this earth, blessed by some magical writers’ god who deemed them worthy of the gift. I now realize that writers are very much of this world and that even the best ones have to work damn hard. Great works don’t just happen.
I will never be the writer I hope to be, but will keep writing and reading obsessively because nothing else gives me as much pleasure (that is after I’ve dealt with the daily angst of just getting to computer!).

It is difficult to name only five books that made a difference, as I am constantly discovering books that inspire me and make me strive to be better. I want to ramble on about my passion for the fiction of Milan Kundera (ah, his economy of words), Lorrie Moore, Yannick Murphy, Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, Peter Carey, Patrick White, Roald Dahl, Dostoyevsky, or the fact that every Ian McEwan novel fills me with awe.
I’m not very good at articulating why I like a certain book so I guess I’ll just start with the first book that transported me to another place and go from there…


THE BUNYIP OF BERKELEY’S CREEK by Jenny Wagner

I still get unnerved and sad when I read this haunting Australia picture book published in 1973. It tells the story of a hulking bunyip (a mythical amphibious creature) that emerges from the bottom of a muddy creek and asks the question “What am I?” He wanders around asking different animals and they tell him he is a bunyip and that bunyips are “ugly”, “horrible”, “nothing”. So the poor lonely bunyip wanders off to a secluded billabong where he can be “as handsome as I like.” In the middle of the night something stirs in the black mud of the billabong. It is a lady bunyip asking, “What am I?”
“You are a bunyip,” the happy man bunyip replies. “You look just like me.”
The dark, moody illustrations by Ron Brooks make The Bunyip of Berkeley’s Creek an unforgettable book. As I child, I feared and loved it equally.


THE BELL JAR by Sylvia Plath

My beloved high school English teacher gave me this book when I was 15 and going through a very difficult time. This insightful teacher assigned a different novel to each student in the class, stating that we were all different people with varying sensibilities.
Reading The Bell Jar as a teenager (who was trying to deal with grief and depression) I felt a connection with an author in a way I had never experienced before. When I discovered that it was based on Plath’s life, and that she committed suicide soon after it was published, my impressionable 15-year-old self was devastated. Oh, how I wished it could have been different for her; that the writing could have saved her.
So, how has it made this writer? I suppose it was the first time I realized that pain and confusion could be channeled into something worthwhile, something beautiful.


SEXING THE CHERRY by Jeanette Winterson

This is the first Jeanette Winterson novel I read (in my early twenties) and the moment I was done I rushed out to find all of her other works.
Sexing the Cherry is the story of an orphan, Jordan, and his keeper, the Dog-Woman. They live in 17th century London but the narrative moves through time and as a result you often don’t know where you are.
It’s hard to describe a Jeanette Winterson novel (see, I told you I wasn’t too good at this book description thing). They are mystical, magical, ballsy, groundbreaking, poetic, masculine, feminine, philosophical… All I can say is, Jeanette Winterson reminds me that anything is possible in fiction.


RIDERS IN THE CHARIOT by Patrick White

Sadly, not many people have heard of this incredible Australian author who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1973. I am very anal about my books (ah, if only I could have this attitude when it comes to housekeeping) and hate broken paperback spines, pencil markings, dog-eared pages… but when reading White’s 1961 novel Riders in the Chariot I was forced to abandon all of my fiction reading foibles.
This poetic, shocking, savage, heartbreaking novel intertwines four very different lives in small town Australia – a Holocaust survivor, a washerwoman, an Aboriginal artist, and a child-like heiress. I won’t say much more but urge you to discover this masterpiece for yourself.


PORTNOY’S COMPLAINT by Philip Roth

I read this daring, funny book when I want to be courageous in my writing; when I’m afraid of going to far. Philip Roth reminds me to go as far as I damn well please!

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Michael: The Books That Made This Writer (slow-track edition)

I am dyslexic. This is the #3 ranked fun fact about me. (The first two involve Jonathan Swift and bees, in that order.) I repeated second grade in honor of my, you know, brain problem, but I am "highly functional" now. Or so I claim. I still read letter by letter, rather than gobbling up words in bunches—I'm still amazed people can do that—but what I lose in speed, I make up in accuracy and recall. 

It may not be an issue now, but it definitely affected my reading habits when I was a kid. Which is to say, I didn't have any reading habits when I was a kid. I began reading for myself late, haltingly, and only because my brother seemed to be having so much fun with it. But while Matt would blast through a thick Stephen King novel in a few days, I labored. I mostly chose short books, and they had to be worth it. 

The first book I remember reading as something other than a homework assignment was The Book of Three, the first in a five-book series by Lloyd Alexander. This was completely because of my brother, who read all five and liked them so much that he named his main Dungeons & Dragons character after one of Alexander's creations. That was an almost unfathomable compliment in our world, and I just had to see why he'd done it. 

I loved The Book of Three—featuring Taran, the heroic assistant pig-keeper!—and even made it through the second book, the very awesome  The Black Cauldron. Loved that too, more even, but that was as far as I got. It was a lot of work, this reading for fun, and I already knew how the series ended from my brother.

So even after that postive start, books weren't a big part of my life. When it got too dark for climbing trees and riding bikes, there was TV and Atari. The next book that had a major impact on me was Watership Down. Technically, that was a homework assignment, but I devoured it in a way that was above and beyond the call of academic duty. That book floored me. Floored me. Still does.

That was fifth grade, fifth or sixth, and again, I didn't run out and start reading everything I could get my hands on. It was more of a growing suspicion that this reading thing could be kind of amazing sometimes. At about the same time, I started writing some poetry because, basically, it was short and I liked rhyming. Still, that was when I started writing for myself.

My dyslexia was thoroughly beaten down by then. It is, essentially, a problem of processing the symbols that make up language in a non-standard way, and years of assigned reading and individual attention in my no nonsense, small town elementary school had effectively retrained me to process those symbols properly. In the space of a few years, I'd gone from Special Ed to the gifted program, and that was really more about my teachers than me.

So now I had the mental tools for advanced reading and knew it could be fun, but I still wasn't an avid reader. That wouldn't happen until Robert Cormier. And then S.E. Hinton. I guess that was seventh grade. The Chocolate War, I Am the Cheese, The Outsiders, Rumble Fish... Kids were passing these books around: You have to check this out.

The books were darker than anything we'd read before. I'm not sure if anyone would have actually disapproved, but we acted that way, passing the little paperbacks around like contraband. And what seventh grader can resist something both portable and forbidden? 

The books were fantastic and now they were cool, too. That was that. I read pretty consistently from that point on. And then, in 10th grade English, we read the poem "Hawk Roosting" by Ted Hughes. Floored again, gobsmacked, whatever. I'd never heard anything like it:
There is no sophistry in my body;
My manners are tearing off heads...

It was the same thrill I'd felt reading Cormier for the first time. How could something be so dark, resonant, and cool and made only of words? And it was my old friend poetry again: still short, though no longer rhyming.

I was an English nerd 4eva after that. I plowed my way through all of Faulkner and then through NYU and into a job in publishing. Eventually, I started writing fiction, and when I made my way to YA, there was no doubt what sort of books I wanted to write. Something dark, something for kids who aren't necessarily avid readers, something they could pass around under their desks.

Will they? I guess we'll find out in April, when Gentlemen comes out. In the mean time, if you'll excuse me, I have some reading to do. 

Friday, January 2, 2009

Randy: Talking Myself Into Voice

When I'm revising a manuscript, I keep a separate file open for self-talk or process-talk. As you'll see in the excerpt below, what I tell myself is pretty fundamental stuff, and it’s more or less the same stuff I’ve been telling myself for over 20 years.

It doesn’t matter what I tell myself, because it’s just a way to trick the mind into being quiet so that I stop thinking about writing, and start writing.

It’s the opposite of talking a suicide down from the ledge.  It’s talking myself into taking the leap into silence and white space and the unknown.

Silence is where voice comes from. For me, finding the voice is what it’s all about.

***

Excerpts from Process-Talk Journal...

I am still not sure how or where to start this next draft. I don’t have the slightest idea. 
How do I take this mess of raw material and narrow it down to a continuous sequence of events, with a hook at the beginning and end of each chapter.

Go back through the draft, run every scene through Q and A. Investigate. Drill down. 
Interrogate every idea. First and second ideas will be clich├ęs; go for the seventh or tenth idea.

Don’t avoid any dramatic confrontations.  

Look for a twist, always look for a twist.

Exaggerate first, tone it down later.

Keep asking: what can go wrong?

***

Don’t worry about transitions, you can plug those in later. Strip out the background explanations and just leave the action.

***

Keep it simple:

- What is happening
- What is going to happen

Maybe for once in your life, see if you can start at the end and work backwards.

***

Work with what’s in front of you. Work with what you have. Don’t worry about what’s NOT there; drill down into what’s there.

***


Stop racking your brain for the big plot idea.

Concentrate on who the characters are.

Character is action.

Character is story/situation.

Conflict creates character.

The more desire, the more conflict and character.

Give him a tangible goal. Preferably a goal you could take a photograph of.

***

Do you have to know who the characters are in order to know their situation?

Or do you start with a situation and see which characters grow out of it.

Who cares. A combo of both.

***

Quality through quantity.

Bring in as much material as you can. The more information and material, the better.

Then cut.

Then build it back up stronger.

Keep doing this process. That is your job.

***

You idiot. It’s all about the five senses, not ideas.

That is the great discovery.

Writing is about the five senses.
Concrete, specific details. Actions.
Focus on the particulars, the palpable textures.
I cannot say this too strongly: it’s about details.

***

Wait, it’s all about voice.


Voice

 comes from

silence.


Voice comes from going in deep and going wild.

***


white space


***


the less said the better


***

“The kings of the old time are dead;
The wandering earth herself may be
Only a sudden flaming word,
In clanging space a moment heard,
Troubling the endless reverie.” 
(Yeats)


***

Silence.


White space.


Now
you are going to take the plunge. Go in.

***


OK we’re going in.

Good bye for a while.

***

Randy Powell’s newest young-adult novel (his eighth) is SWISS MIST, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux