Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Megan: The Myth of Reading Up

It is a truth universally acknowledged that teens read up. Your protagonist should be a couple of years older than your audience, or so the thinking goes. It's time to start questioning this assertion, at least when it comes to high school students.

I'm surprised how many times I'm asked what aged audience I was thinking of when I wrote Secrets of Truth & Beauty. Occasionally a parent or teacher has told me, a bit guiltily, that they liked the book but wouldn't give it to their fifth grader. That's fine, I think, I didn't write it for your fifth grader. I wrote it for high school students.

In my job as a high school librarian, I help teens to make their reading choices every day. For the most part, they want to read about other teenagers. When I look at the fiction on my return cart, I do not see a row of adult novels. Instead I see mostly YA, with a few Jodi Picoult and Stephen King thrown in – authors, it should be noted, who often feature teen characters.

It would be a reasonable assumption to think that since I am a YA author, I would be inclined to purchase and recommend YA books. However, my evidence is not simply anecdotal. Every year, librarian Jo Lewis asks members of LM-Net, a school librarian list-serv, to report their top ten checkouts. She collects and analyzes the data, and compiles lists for each type of school (elementary, middle, secondary). If you go to the list, and choose "secondary" from the drop down menu, you'll see that the top ten for high school students are all young adult novels.

So that's high school. What about younger teens? In 2009, the Twilight series was tops in middle schools as well as high schools – no surprise there. With a few notable exceptions (The Lovely Bones!?), the rest of the top ten are books with a middle school audience in mind. While it seems that younger teens may range both younger and older, they too, are eager to read stories about kids their age. Teens it seems, want to read about teens.

Thankfully the explosion in YA literature means that there are books for every age and interest. For me this is not simply a matter of curiosity, but one of equity. Teens, like everyone else deserve to see themselves in books. Sixteen, seventeen, and eighteen year olds shouldn't be forced to read about mid-life angst since the younger kids are reading about their lives.

As writers it's our responsibility to portray our world's honestly. If the stories we tell about teens also find resonance with a fifth grader, so much the better, but we needn't simplify or clean up because this younger reader might pick up the book. Write your story. Write the truth. Everyone will be better off for it.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Nina: HOLD STILL book trailer

In celebration of today--which is the launch day of my first novel, HOLD STILL--I'd love to share my book trailer with you.

I have to admit that I kind of live in fear of marketing tasks. I'm terrible at writing little blurbs about my book. I can't even describe what it's about very well. I have a former student who read an ARC and said, when she was finished, "I had no idea that your book was going to be like this!" When I asked her what she thought it was going to be like, she told me that all she had to base her expectations on was the answer I gave her a couple years ago when she asked me what it was about. Not surprisingly, all I had told her was, "It's about a girl in high school." Now, as she was telling me what she thought of it, she said, "I had no idea that anything was actually going to happen."

So, yes. I am not so good at this kind of thing.

But making a trailer was exciting. It was not a task, it was a project. I really, really like projects.

I especially like projects when they involve people I love. A lot of people who I love were involved in the making of this: The girls in the trailer are my mother's photography students (which is perfect for the book); the footage was shot on a Super 8 camera by my very talented wife, Kristyn Stroble; my best friend, Amanda Krampf, directed and edited; Mia Nolting (who illustrated HOLD STILL) provided the illustrations and hand lettering; and Emma Galvin (who is the reader on the audio version) is narrating. I stood off to the side and let it all happen.

Here it is. I hope you enjoy it.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Bouchercon is on!

You'll have to excuse me if I'm a little nervous.  In two days, I'm meeting up with 650 young readers, and I'm hoping to make a good impression.

It's all part of Bouchercon 2009.  What the bleep is Bouchercon, you ask?  Well, Bouchercon (bow-cher-con) is the world's biggest annual gathering of mystery authors and fans, drawing about 1,500 people every year.  It's a certified blast, for reasons that include but aren't limited to: (a) panel discussions with great authors; (b) evenings at the hotel bar (provided you're 21, natch) worth the price of admission alone; (c) and field trips like the one I took at last year's convention in Baltimore, where you see cool stuff like Edgar Allan Poe's grave:

Anyway, the convention's numbers will swell a bit when the convention hits Indianapolis on Thursday, because the conference organizers had the genius plan to include, for the first time, programming for kids.   

Baseball teams are smart enough to have "kids get in free days" -- which expose kids to the game, make some lifelong fans in the process, and bring their parents along in the bargain.  That's just what's happening at Bouchercon this year:  the convention is sharing the thrill of mystery novels in particular, and books in general, with mystery authors' future readers.

For YA writers, it's even better, because the kids coming out to the convention are our current readers.  

I hope they do this programming again next year, and if so I hope  more YA writers get on board.  (Although we've got a great group this year, including Chris Grabenstein and honored guest Wendelin Van Draanen.)  I underscore that point because I imagine many authors reading this might be saying, "yeah, that's great and all, but I don't write mysteries."  If you just nodded your head, don't be so hasty.  

Earlier this year, the Mystery Writers of America gave its prestigious Edgar Award for best YA mystery novel to the very deserving Paper Towns by John Green.  It's an excellent book, but one that most probably wouldn't think of primarily as a mystery.  

Similarly, I think for purposes of the Bouchercon conference, the definition of "mystery" is probably best left fairly open.  Open, that is, all the great YA authors out there writing stories that include foul deeds, hidden pasts, secret identities, microscopes, and/or fake mustaches. 

I mean, that covers most of the good books anyways, right?  In any case, there are a lot of you out there, and I hope to see you at Bouchercon 2010.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Marianna: Pleased to meet you -- fully exploiting a character's first scene

It's a cliche, I know, but you really do get only one chance at making a first impression -- in life and in fiction. From the moment a new character enters a book, the reader consciously and subconsciously picks up on clues about his nature and quickly forms an opinion. If details are not thoughtfully chosen, a character's first scene can be a missed opportunity or, more negatively, disruptively misleading.

Describing a character’s physical appearance is certainly one tool you -- the writer -- have at your disposal, but actions and dialogue are the keys to creating more complex, nuanced first impressions. Sarah Dessen’s enormously popular young adult novels contain excellent examples of how a great deal of information can be subtly conveyed through deceptively simple, short scenes.

Although the plots obviously vary, there are consistent themes in Dessen’s novels. One of the hallmarks of a Dessen book is that the narrator, a teenage girl, begins a relationship with a new boy during the course of the story. (If the protagonist has a boyfriend at the opening of the novel, you can rest assured that he’ll be gone in a few chapters to make way for the new guy.)

Because the protagonists are meeting these boys for the first time, Dessen always has a scene in her books with that initial, pivotal encounter between narrator and eventual love interest. Looking closely at these scenes, it is remarkable how many signals Dessen subtly incorporates to foreshadow what the boy is really like and where the relationship is headed. To highlight the fact that appearance is only part of this, the quotes included here omit all references to what the characters look like.

In Dreamland, Caitlin, the narrator, first meets Rogerson Briscoe at a gas station after she has come from a disastrous cheerleading experience:

He was standing next to the black BMW... As I passed he looked up and watched me, staring. “Hey,” he called out just as I passed out of sight… I took a few steps back and suddenly he was right there; he’d moved to catch up with me (50).

The most telling detail in this passage is the use of the phrase “suddenly he was right there.” Although it is not overt or heavy handed, there is a threatening undercurrent to Rogerson’s sudden appearance. It’s creepy.

The scene continues: “He smiled, then looked me up and down. Suddenly I knew I looked idiotic in my cheerleading uniform…‘Nice outfit,’ he said” (50). With one small gesture and comment, Rogerson brings out Caitlin’s insecurity. Dessen swiftly establishes his judgmental attitude towards Caitlin’s life, and her self-doubting response to his disapproval.

The climax of the scene – the moment when Rogerson has the most profound effect on Caitlin – directly follows his subtly demeaning comment about her uniform.

He glanced at the bandage on my upper arm, then asked, “What happened to you there?”…

“I fell off a [cheerleading] pyramid earlier tonight.”

“Ouch,” he said, and before I could even move he reached out and touched my bandage, running a finger across it…“You okay?”

“I… I don’t know,” I said. This was strangely true at that moment (50-51).

Rogerson’s gesture of reaching out to touch Caitlin “before she could even move,” though small, is presumptuous and aggressive. And although the reader knows Caitlin means she doesn’t know if she’s “okay” because she’s feeling so intrigued by Rogerson, her response shows that his action disturbed and unsettled her. Moments later, Rogerson makes his exit:

“I should go,” I said…

“Sure,” he said, nodding. “See ya around, Caitlin.” And he raised his chin, backing up, keeping his eyes on me (51).

Just that fleeting image of Rogerson says so much. The raised chin conveys cockiness; the way he keeps looking at Caitlin is subtly menacing. He will be watching her.

Caitlin and Rogerson’s romance begins soon after this first meeting. Following an initial happy phase, Rogerson becomes physically and mentally abusive. In that brief scene where Rogerson is introduced, Dessen foreshadows many elements of his character and of their relationship: Rogerson’s tendency to prey on Caitlin’s insecurities; his judgmental nature; the aggressive, presumptuous way he treats Caitlin’s body; his constant watchfulness; Caitlin’s attraction to his aggressiveness; and the strong emotions he evokes in her. Most importantly, Dessen conveys all of this without showing Rogerson kicking a dog, or anything so blatant. Dessen is able to straddle the line of having Rogerson be attractive to Caitlin while setting the scene for his cruel behavior later in the novel.

Dexter, the main love interest in This Lullaby, makes quite a different entrance. Remy, the narrator, is already known to the reader as being highly cynical about anything relating to love and relationships. And it’s through her eyes that the reader meets Dexter. Remy is sitting in a car dealership, already in a bad mood.

Just then, someone plopped down hard into the chair on my left, knocking me sideways into the wall… And suddenly, just like that, I was pissed…

“What the hell,” I said, pushing off the wall… I turned my head and saw …it was a guy…around my age… And for some reason he was smiling.

“Hey there,” he said cheerfully. “How’s it going?” (10-11)

Dexter’s cheerful demeanor immediately counteracts the fact that he bumped into Remy. The reader, knowing how cranky Remy is, doesn’t pick up on his physical contact as a threatening or violent action. Rather, it is clear that Remy is overreacting. Dexter seems happily oblivious, a stark contrast to Remy’s negativity.

Remy continues to give him a hard time. “’You just slammed me into the wall, asshole.’ He blinked. ‘Goodness,’ he said finally. ‘Such language’” (11). Dexter’s unperturbed response to Remy’s nastiness proves both that he has a sense of humor, and that he is not easily put off by Remy’s tough girl demeanor. Despite her abuse, he continues on in an enthusiastic manner.

“The thing is,” he said…”I saw you out in the showroom. I was over by the tire display?”…“I just thought to myself, all of a sudden, that we had something in common. A natural chemistry, if you will... That we were, in fact, meant to be together…”; “[Knocking into you] was an accident. An oversight. Just an unfortunate result of the enthusiasm I felt knowing I was about to talk to you” (11).

With this confession, Dexter comes across as an over-excited puppy. His enthusiasm seems genuine and his lack of pretension or cool façade is immediately appealing.

When Dexter touches Remy – uninvited – it makes quite a different impression than when Rogerson touches Caitlin:

“Just take this,” the guy said, grabbing my hand. He turned it palm up before I could even react…then proceeded…to write a name and phone number in the space between my thumb and forefinger…Talk about not respecting a person’s boundaries. I’d dumped drinks on guys for even brushing against me at a club, much less yanking my hand and actually writing on it (12-13).

The reader knows to take Remy’s reaction with a grain of salt – after all, she’s just said she dumps drinks on guys who brush against her. So instead of being threatening, Dexter’s action of grabbing her hand is simply endearing. Remy is not in danger; she can take care of herself.

Having established Remy’s cynical take on love, Dessen uses this introduction to show Dexter as the anti-Remy: a happy, bumbling, easily love-struck guy. In addition, the whole interaction mirrors Dexter and Remy’s relationship throughout the book. Dexter crashes into Remy’s emotional life, creating unwanted cracks in her self-protective armor. And despite her desperate attempts to push him away, in the end, she can’t help but be won over.

It might be argued that as long as the character acts “like himself” in his first scene, he will create a distinct and correct impression. But this is simplifying the matter. People are complex, as is a good character. In different scenes they will act many different ways. The scenes in Dreamland and This Lullaby show not just any one side of the character, but the side of the character that is most important to the narrative: the way he will relate to and treat the narrator, the character the reader is identifying with. This makes the introductory scenes highly effective.

The characters are not the only ones invested in the course of these romantic relationships; the readers are invested, as well. So Dessen is very smart to give such consideration to her characters’ introductions. She wants the reader to be wary of Rogerson, and to root for Dexter to cut through Remy’s tough girl façade. It’s not enough for her to describe the guys as good-looking. Of course they’re good-looking – these are fairly traditional teen romance novels. Dessen uses the actions of the characters to predispose the reader to feel excited and satisfied with the direction the relationship takes.

So, when you're in the revision process, go through and look at the scenes where you introduce new characters. Are there ways in which you can deepen/strengthen/complexify (not a word, I know, but it should be) the impression he makes? Are you giving the reader misleading clues? Remember -- no detail is too small to play a part in the overall opinion the reader takes away from her first meeting with your character. Use this to your advantage!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Sara: Call for submissions!

This is my first week back from maternity leave, and I am not too pleased with myself for having assigned myself the blog. BUT, as I had put an almost stop on queries, and I am in the unusual position of not having too many requested manuscripts to read, I thought I might discuss what I am hoping you will send me.

I will focus on YA, and will tackle middle grades in another post. I am going to talk about some of the authors I have taken on, and why.

John Ford did not give a long description of his debut, THE MORGUE AND ME (published in June by Viking) in his query letter. It was just a sentence:

The Morgue and Me, winner of the Maryland Writer’s Association Novel Contest, features eighteen-year-old in Northern Michigan who takes a unusual summer job -- at the local morgue -- and uncovers the truth behind a violent death that the Medical Examiner has ruled, quite suspiciously, to be a case of suicide.

Wrapping up the plot of a novel in one sentence is far from easy, and John impressed me with doing exactly that. He did not need more than one sentence to tell me that the book is a mystery, and that it features a teen who works in a morgue, both of which made me want to read the novel immediately. A summer job at a morgue is quirky, and I like quirky. I also love mysteries and thrillers for young adults, and great boy protagonists.

Michael Northrop’s GENTLEMEN (published in April by Scholastic), like THE MORGUE AND ME, could also me described as a thriller. Its about a close-knit group of boys who are ignored or feared by everyone at their school, except for their English teacher, who calls them gentlemen. When one of their group goes missing, the story takes a dark turn, and clues start to point to the teacher having something to do with his disappearance. I like dark as much as I like quirky.

Nina Lacour’s debut, HOLD STILL is coming out from Dutton in October. Here is the description from Nina’s original query:

Caitlin Madison and Ingrid Bauer are more than best friends—they are each other's sole allies in a town of strip malls and identical houses. But when Ingrid commits suicide, Caitlin plunges into her junior year alone. Determined to remain friendless, she chooses a locker in the undesirable science hall on the edge of campus, where she hopes to go unnoticed. The discovery of Ingrid's journal pushes Caitlin even further into her reclusion, but soon the new girl in town, Dylan Schuster—confident, quick-witted, rumored to have been expelled from her old school for making out with a girl in the bathroom—claims the locker next to Caitlin's. As Ingrid's journal reveals the events leading to her death, Caitlin struggles against grief to navigate, with Dylan's help, the new and unexpected course her life will take.

I think I have said that I am not a huge fan of problem novels-- which to me refers to a novel that feels that it is about an issue and not about the characters. That this book is about suicide could make it a problem novel, but Nina’s beautiful description of the book let me know that this was also a book about friendship and about how to navigate high school and a difficult year. I loved her quick description of Dylan- letting me know in a few short phrases who she is, and revealing Nina’s sharp attention to detail.

Lisa Schroeder’s first young adult novel, I HEART YOU YOU HAUNT ME is also about loss, and is a verse novel— something I know I would not have said I was looking for at the time. Here is her query:

Fifteen-year-old Ava is heartbroken over the death of her boyfriend, Jackson. But it isn’t long after his funeral when she discovers while he may be dead, he definitely isn’t gone.

At first she’s thrilled to know his spirit has stayed to be with her. He lets her know he’s with her by playing particular songs on the CD player, appearing in the mirror occasionally, sending her brief mind messages, and visiting her in her wildly intense dreams.

And then, one day, when her parents whisk her away to the beach, she meets Lyric, who reminds her what it’s like to laugh and flirt and talk with a real, live boy. She begins to realize that having a ghost for a boyfriend is neither easy nor fulfilling.

How can she ask the love of her life to leave when he seems unable to leave her behind and when she is harboring some guilt over the accident that killed him? Will he leave peacefully, or is Ava destined to be haunted by Jackson forever?

That this was a ghost story was appealing to me- and I liked how she sets up the idea that Ava will have to choose between a ghost and “real, live boy” and is dealing with the problems of having a ghost for a boyfriend. This gave me a sense of who Ava is, and how she thinks. Lisa’s second verse novel, FAR FROM YOU again about loss- this time losing a mother was published in January, and a third, CHASING BROOKLYN, is coming next year, again about a loss! So- I do look for books with serious topics. BUT I love funny books as well.

Which brings me to Kristen Tracy’s forthcoming YA, A FIELD GUIDE FOR HEARTBREAKERS (Hyperion, summer 2010) which is about two best friends spending a summer in Prague. Dessy hopes to hone her writing craft at their prestigious summer program and to get over her recent breakup, while Veronica is hoping to complete her "Man-wall" in Prague, one paper cutout for every hot-dude she meets. Side note- I also love interesting settings, and Prague is a perfect setting for a novel about breaking hearts.

Early on in the book, Veronica is helping Dessy shop for a suitcase for the trip, and while Dessy is thinking about what is practical, Veronica has other concerns.

I spotted Veronica crouching beside an upright purple suitcase.
“What are you doing?”
“Measuring. We need to be able to fit inside our bags.”
I looked down at her face, but she was completely focused on her measurements. Then I asked the obvious question.
“Because I plan on having real fun!”
“Inside your suitcase?”
Veronica knocked over the suitcase and continued looking.
“Listen, I don’t plan on playing by the rules,” she said. “We’re going to be the youngest people there. I can predict right now that there’s going to be a ton of sneaking around. Therefore, we need to be able to fit inside our suitcases. Because that’s the ultimate sneak. Trust me. It’s how Boz sneaked me into his bedroom three times this spring.”
Boz and Veronica had a very exciting relationship. More exciting than any other high school students I knew. It was what I would call tumultuous. Except mostly the tumult seemed like fun. Separate, those two were already fearless. But together, they had no inhibitions whatsoever. It’s as if nobody had ever clued them in on the fact that they were mortal. You could see it in the way they danced. And swam. And assembled sandwiches. And downhill skied.
It was just like Veronica to already be thinking of something as crazy as sneaking around in luggage.
I rejoined her beside a mound of bright bags.
“So who’ll be pulling us around?” I asked. “That could turn dangerous. Some crazy person could run off with us. We need to make sure we can unzip ourselves from the inside.”
“How lame,” Veronica said. “That totally deflates the thrill.”
Veronica accused me of deflating the thrill on a fairly regular basis. But deep down, I suspected she appreciated my foot-dragging nature. It’s as if I operated as her second conscience--the one that was fully functioning.
“I’m not magician’s-assistant bendable like you. I’m five foot seven.” Veronica was five foot three, which gave her a clear advantage in terms of making herself suitcase-size. “I was thinking about something more like this.” I pointed to a medium-size green case.
“Why do you want to limit our options before we even go? The world is our clam,” she said.
“Oyster,” I corrected.

I am sure I have said in some places that I am not looking for fantasy or historical-- but that is not quite true. I don’t rule anything out because its historical or fantastical. Contemporary often speaks more to me because I respond to the realism of that writing, its emotional truth, but when a story is out of this world and fantastical, it can still work for me-- as long as I can believe in the characters and the world they are living in. Brian Yansky's ALIEN INVASION AND OTHER INCONVENIENCES-- due out next spring from Candlewick, is a perfect example. Yes, aliens have taken over America and the rest of earth, and this is not a situation I am familiar with, but the story is told through the experiences of two teens and Brian perfectly captures their emotions about the new world-- and the reader will believe that this is indeed what teens would feel like and be like when faced with this challenge. It is also very funny. And serious.

I hope this has given some sense of what I love to read.

Looking forward to your queries,