Friday, May 28, 2010

Sara: I love Middle grade

A while back I promised to talk about what middle grade novels appeal to me and what I look for in middle grade. I do work with less middle grade than YA, but not because I have any less love for it.

What I want to find when I begin a middle grade submission is not so different at all from what I want in a YA submission. I still want to find good prose, voice, plot, emotion, authenticity. In middle grade, though, I am mostly looking for contemporary stories. Not as a rule-- I did just take on a middle grade fantasy, but for the most part the books I love in the category are contemporary.

What I love about great middle grade is its ability to reveal the inner world of the protagonist and to be internal where YA is external. There are so many exceptions to any rule in fiction, and so many exceptions among books I love, but YA usually has an immediacy that middle grade does not always have because the character is still focused or even newly focused on who they are within their world and not yet as much on finding their place in the greater world. Where YA is driven so much by the protagonist and how they see the outside world, middle grade protagonists usually still see authority figures as the center of their worlds, and so their conflict is often coming to terms with and finding their place in that world. MG characters are often just discovering that authority figures are flawed, that their parents, their teachers, their older siblings are not always dependable. And, more simply, that they have opinions and wants separate from their family and some of their friends. They are figuring out what family means, and finding their unique place within their family or their group of friends.

They are questioning authority -- but authority figures still rule their world. What might be considered MGs limitations can actually allow for more complexities. Often they have adult characters who are just as compelling, and can show us a family in a more complete way than YA can. Where YA can be all about me, me, me, middle grade can show us the big picture of a small world.

I don't like it when I see that a plot has been oversimplified for the audience. Middle grade plots can be just as complex as YA plots, even if they are not always as dark. But often, they are dark. Lisa Schroeder's IT'S RAINING CUPCAKES is not something I would describe as dark, but the main character Isabel's mother is depressed, and its something that Isabel can feel and see, and that complicates her world and that also helps her to see things in her own way. In Kristen Tracy's CAMILLE MCPHEE FELL UNDER THE BUS, there is so much humor (another thing I adore in middle grade) but her parents are having problems in their marriage, and their issues are affecting everything else in Camille's life.

I am still suffering from a tired BEA trodden brain, and this list changes often, but if I had to give my favorite middle grade that is not a book I worked with right now, it would be THE VIEW FROM SATURDAY by E.L. Konigsburg. Please do write and then send me a book like this one. There is so much in this book- humor, mystery, family, secrets, baby turtles, a wedding, a tea party, and an Academic Bowl team called the Souls. But notice too that the teacher, Mrs. Olinski is a character as important to the story as the children.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Holly: The Highs and Lows of Publication

My debut novel, The Snowball Effect, was published nearly two months ago. I knew there would be highs and lows but it was still nothing like I imagined. Some moments fell drastically short of my most modest expectations, while other moments far exceeded anything I could have hoped for. Some days I feel like a rockstar writer, some days I feel like a total failure, and other days I'm so busy with "real" life that my writing life doesn't even cross my mind. Here are some of the highlights, good and bad.

It's finally release day of your first novel! You've been waiting for this day for two years. 18 years, really, if we count from the moment you first realized you wanted to be a published author one day.

You haven't had time to take a shower, your pajamas don't match, the cat vomited in your office again, and you still have to do your day job. Release day is not quite as glamorous as you imagined.

Work is over and it's time to venture out and see your book on the shelves of a real bookstore for the first time, just like you've imagined for 18 years.

Tragically, your favorite big chain doesn't have your book. You go home and check online to find it elsewhere and see a steady stream of


You frantically email your editor who confirms that the big chains won't be stocking your book. Let the pity party commence.

PW loves your book! "Masterful." Starred review.

SLJ hates your book! "Bleak."

The release party you've been dreaded actually goes well. All your family and friends show up. The bookstore sells all their copies plus some you'd stored in the trunk of your car. And you have a good hair day and look super cute in your party dress. What more could a girl ask for?

After the release party high wears off, you become convinced that if the big chains don't stock your first book, you will never sell a second book. If you don't sell a second book you won't have any money for a bigger house. If you don't have a bigger house, you can't have children. You fall into a deep depression and wonder why the big chains don't want you to have children.

You realize you should probably be doing your own promotion, so you visit a local indie and nervously introduce yourself. To your surprise, they are super excited to meet you. They take your bookmarks, order your book, and have you come back to sign their stock.

You're now feeling pretty confident so you visit another, bigger indie and give them the exact same spiel. They have no clue what you're talking about. Then they guess you want to buy bookmarks so they direct you to a rack of bookmarks. So you just leave, feeling like a total loser.

Your local library system finally gets your book in stock.

Now you're paranoid about visiting the library out of fear that the librarians will recognize your unique last name and get irritated that you keep turning your book face out on the shelf, or that they will judge your questionable fashion choices and gossip about you on some secret librarian message board. So you avoid the library.

You start to hear from readers who love your book.

You accidentally come across reviews from people who hate your book. Okay, it wasn't much of an accident. You're actually still googling yourself from time to time even though you pretend you're not.

A reader sends you a picture of your book at a library in Singapore. You cannot believe that your book is in Singapore. That's far.

Even though you'd long fantasized about visiting local bookstores on your honeymoon on the West Coast and signing their stock, you don't visit any because you're certain they won't have your book and you'll just feel like crap and depress your new husband with your foul mood.

When you return from your honeymoon, you find an email from an 11-year-old girl who read your book and loved it. She says she wants to be a writer too. And you remember what it was like to be 11. You carried around a spiral notebook and wrote your first novel at age 11. You kept it on your lap during class and surreptitiously wrote in it when there was a lull in the teacher's lesson. You think about your 11-year-old self and marvel at how excited she would be to know that she gets to grow up to be YOU. She had dreams and she made them come true. And maybe all the details aren't perfect, but this is only the beginning. There are so many more highs and lows to come but you're doing exactly what you've always wanted to do with your life, and what could be better than that?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

John: Ending with a Bang

Every morning at 6:00 a.m., my alarm clock wakes me to the sounds of a sports talk-radio show in DC. The show is (and I say this charitably) pretty terrible. I seriously should start listening NPR or something. But I never do, and the reason for that illustrates an important lesson about storytelling.

Whenever a particularly painful segment of the show compels me to switch the station, something happens. Invariably, the host will be going to a commercial. This host has a great many deficiencies, but when cutting to commercials he's nothing short of a mad genius. He will say something like: "Could a baseball icon really be getting married to Tila Tequila? More on this highly unlikely romance right after this message."

By that that point, my hand hand has frozen over the dial. I've become transfixed--I absolutely must know who this baseball icon is and whether he and Tila Tequila are getting hitched! So I keep the station on for the rest of the morning, until the process repeats itself all over again two weeks later. The stories never turn out as good as they seemed (like, you find out that the "baseball icon" is the Philly Phanatic, and their "engagement" was a Twitter joke), but that's not the point.

The point is this: endings keep you reading. Allow me to explain.

If you're writing a novel, you know you need a strong opening. To engage the reader, you want to grab them from the first setence. This principle is particularly relevant to aspiring authors, who are using their opening pages as their calling card to the industry. So, yes, it's important to create a compelling opening.

But that will only get you so far. While an opening kick-starts a reader's interest in a story, the novel writer's bigger challenge is sustaining that interest over 250 pages or so. And to do that, good endings are vital.

I'm not talking about the end of the novel itself, but rather the endings to the individual segments--scenes, chapters, etc.--that comprise your story. Ending those invidivual scenes and chapters the right way can give your story a powerful forward momentum that makes the reader downright eager to plow through to the end.

Broadly speaking, each "segment" of a novel should present a conflict and resolve it some way. Let's say, for example, you are writing a chapter about a professional mascot asking Tila Tequila out on a date. The potential sources of conflict here are endless (can the mascot overcome his shyness, can he traverse the crowded bar to talk to Tila before she starts dancing on it, etc. etc.), as are the resolutions (many of which, I imagine, involve the Playboy mansion).

The specifics aren't important. What's important is this: the ending of the chapter should spin the story in a new direction that presents some new conflict facing the main character.

Consider two versions of this chapter. In both, the Phanatic has overcome his great shyness to ask Tila out for a date.

In the first, Tila throws a drink in the Phanatic's face and says no. End of chapter.

In the second, Tila smiles and says "I only date guys with tatoos. You don't have a tatoo, do you?" The Phanatic, who has a paralyzing fear of needles, swallows hard. "I could g-g-get one," he says. End of chapter.

The end of the first version brings the narrative to a grinding halt. The second ending, however, twists the plot in a new direction. It resolves the immediate scene, but also presents a new goal for the hero (get tatoo) and obstacle (fear of needles) to tackle. That mere suggestion of a fresh new conflict--a new question to be answered, a new challenge to be addressed--is amazingly effective in sustaining readers' interest.

It's exactly what the sports radio show does to me every morning, and I fall for it every time.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Jeff: The End of the World as I Know It

Look at any list of upcoming YA novels and what jumps out at you? More than likely it is some combination of the words post-apocalyptic or dystopian. I mean, they're everywhere; right? I should know, my book, The Long Walk Home, is one of them.

Now, assuming all us writers aren't just trend followers (Honestly, it's not really possible. It just takes way to long to write edit and get a book published) what's going on? Why are so many writers, independent of each other, writing stories like this and why are people so interested in reading them? Specifically why are kids interested in reading them?

Well I can only theorize why kids are reading them (which I'll do in a minute) but here's what led me to write mine....

I was thinking about the Gordian Knot. You know the story. Alexander the Great comes to Gordium and finds a knot so complex he can't untie it. His solution? Chop it in half with his sword. Problem solved. I think alot of people think our world feels alot like that knot--mind bogglingly complex and so twisted up with competing ideologies and completely unsustainable, but politically unassailable, policies that the whole thing has just ground to a halt and become completely useless. Sometimes it feels like the only solution, the only way we'll ever be able to move forward, is to just tear it down and start all over again. I mean, who doesn't have a fantasy of a simpler and quieter time? A time when we live closer to nature, closer to each other, closer to our own necessity. I think that idea, the idea of being able to hit the reset button on the world and being faced with the sheer sense of possibility that would bring, is what drew me to writing a book like this.

Now, why do kids want to read this stuff? Well partially I think for the reasons above. They live in the same world that we do; they're not blind. But also I think that when you're moving through your teens years your life is a constant upending of everything you know. Like many writers, I spent my early teen years as an impenetrably shy loner. I ate alone. I had no friends. I had no direction. But then one day I wandered into our High School's theater when auditions were going on and for some reason I got up on that stage and BAM! For the first time in my life I was good at something! And so much followed that. I found a focus, I found friends, I found a sense of humor, I found girls that were actually willing to talk to me. I found a me that simply wasn't there before. If this wasn't the end of one world and the beginning of a new one I didn't know what was.

And it seems like when you're a teen so many events in your life are like that, these huge catalysts for transformation. You go from Junior High to High School. Maybe your parents move and you have to switch schools. You make the football team or you don't. A girl talks to you or she doesn't. One little adjustment and everything can change. Over and over you're saying goodbye to one world and hello to another. Didn't it feel like that? So monumental? We laugh at it now, all the drama, but add years of near constant transformative change to a set of raging hormones and a evolving sense of self and no wonder every little thing felt like the end of the world. Of course our teens years felt monumental. They were monumental.

So I think when teens read this sort of story they connect to it because they understand the idea of a life that is constantly subject to transformation, they get the grandeur of it, the angst and fear and possibility of it. I think teens like this stuff simply because the end of the world makes sense to them. To them it's something that happens every day. I know it did to me.